Fallen Heroes | Jean Vanier

The news that an internal investigation by l’Arche International has concluded that its late founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused at least six women and was an associate of the disgraced priest, Thomas Phlippe, has been met with horror and profound sadness. 

The horror is because we have yet another revelation of abuse in the Catholic Church by someone whose work for the disabled made him a hero to many. But there have been so many such revelations that even as we register the terrible sin, we are tempted to breathe a sigh of relief: the abuser was a layman, not a priest or religious; none of the abused was a child or disabled. How easily we forget what a dreadful experience it must have been for those who were abused and how they are condemned to live with its consequences for the rest of their lives. Have we become so accustomed to cases of abuse that we no longer see them for what they really are but try to find ways of downplaying their significance or arguing for a ‘less worse’ scenario? The most we can say is that l’Arche itself seems to have acted with commendable frankness and transparency, but facts remain facts. Jean Vanier’s name has been tarnished for ever. He is a hero no more; the halo has slipped.

I think that is why the news has also been greeted with more than ordinary sadness. Despite the abuse, Vanier did a lot of good — more than most of us will achieve in our lifetimes. We need to remember that, as well as the bad things; but, of course, we want our heroes to be flawless, and in the Catholic Church we are keen to make saints of our heroes. When we see they are neither, we are disappointed, maybe even feel a little foolish. I was once at a meeting where Jean Vanier spoke. What he said was inspiring, but I felt uncomfortable at the way he was being treated. At any moment, I thought, someone is going to genuflect before him. Happily, no-one did, but it was clear that no-one was going to challenge anything he said, either. Every word was received as incontrovertible wisdom. The sense of santo subito in the room was palpable.

Where does all that leave us now? In community we shall be praying, first and foremost, for those who have been abused; for l’Arche, its communities and supporters as they face the fall-out from the report; for forgiveness for Jean Vanier himself; and for ourselves and all who admired the work Jean Vanier did. That last may surprise you, but I think that in mourning his fall from grace and the suffering inflicted on others by his actions, we are also mourning for ourselves. We have lost an icon and our trust has been dented. More than that, we have been confronted with something we usually prefer not to admit or have difficulty fully understanding. We, like him, are a mixture of good and bad. We hope the good outweighs the bad, but sin is a brutal fact in our lives which Lent will bring into sharp focus. We may like to think we would never murder anyone, commit abuse or steal, but we are all capable of evil and can never be sure that we won’t fall into sin — especially those sins we like to think we are safe from.

Sunday’s Mass readings (Leviticus 19. 1–2, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 3. 16–23; Matthew 5. 38–48) speak to us of the holiness of God, the sacredness of the human body, and our need to emulate God’s love and compassion. There is more than enough there for us to reflect on and to stimulate prayer for forgiveness and healing. They seem to me to encapsulate Jean Vanier’s vision for l’Arche and for a more compassionate society. It would be a tragedy if, because of the hurt that has been done and the scandal now attaching to his name, the work of l’Arche were to be discredited and more were to suffer. Let’s pray it may not be so.

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