February 27, 2020

Jean Vanier had the kindest of faces. A mop of white hair, bushy eyebrows, a noble aquiline nose with creases radiating out from the eyes and the mouth that suggested decades of smiling. A tall man, he spoke softly, slowly, inviting trust and confidence.

In 1964, the Catholic theologian set up what was to become the l’Arche community, a place where men and women with learning difficulties would share their lives with others. It was a place where people could discover what it was to be human, Vanier often remarked. The last time I met him was back in 2015, when he spoke to a packed committee room of the House of Commons. He talked movingly about what the weak can teach the strong, that the vulnerability of the weak contains a vital message about who we really are, a message that is concealed by all the guises we put on in order to hide from our own inherent all-too-human vulnerabilities.

The total effect of his presence and his words was to calm me, soothe me. This is why I was a Christian. He was the nearest thing to a saint I had ever met. I loved Jean Vanier.

A few days ago, the l’Arche community published a report, the result of an internal inquiry, in which Jean Vanier was exposed as a sexual predator. And I have been reeling from it ever since. The sense of disappointment is crushing. I don’t want to write about it. I’m not sure how to write about it. I feel I have to write about it.

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First, the details, such as they are known. It seems that over the course of several decades Vanier had sexual relationships with a number of women who had come to him for spiritual accompaniment. These were not women with learning difficulties, but they were vulnerable nonetheless. Under the influence of Vanier’s enormous charismatic power, they were seduced into relationships that they experienced as abusive. It seems that Vanier used the language of Christian vulnerability in order to persuade women to sleep with him.

I write “it seems” not to indicate some reservation about these women’s testimony. I believe them. Nonetheless, Vanier died last year and the report commissioned by l’Arche says that the standard of proof that they have employed is more on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt. But the testimony of the women that they interviewed independently of each other suggests a pattern. He would talk the language of the Bible, of the need for vulnerability, in order to persuade women to have sex with him. And then he would swear them to secrecy.

In legal terms, it’s not Harvey Weinstein. There is no suggestion in the report that he used physical force to overpower women. But it was abuse nonetheless. And an abuse not only of the women who went to him for guidance, but also of the faith of people like me who thought him to be a most compelling advocate. How dare he take the language of Christian vulnerability and use it to persuade the vulnerable to open their legs for him. Meryl Streep famously called Weinstein “God”. People generally knew what she meant: he wasn’t a paragon of virtue, he was supremely powerful. But the link between Vanier and God was supposed to be the real thing.

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This is what I want to say: that Vanier’s abusive behaviour does not undo all the good he has done. He founded l’Arche in 1964 and since then it has grown to 153 communities in 38 countries. I want to say human beings are complex creatures, a mixture of good and evil. I want to talk of forgiveness and God’s love for all, including sinners. And yes, all this is true.

But Vanier has poisoned the well and made this all feel like so much religious blah. This is why I am so furious with him: he has dripped poison into the very heart of the Christian story. Vulnerability before God is the pivot of the Christian narrative of redemption. Having the courage to say “help me” is how the redemptive work of grace is initiated. Vanier knew this. Yet when women — including a nun — came to him in this spirit, he abused them. This is a spiritual crime of the highest order.

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel. When I have read these words in the past I have often imagined a child going to his father for a cuddle and receiving a slap. Now I will also think of women going to Vanier for his blessing, and receiving, instead, a hand up their skirt.

All this is going to take a long time for me to process. And the period of Lent, which began this week, is a good time for that. One thing to be grateful for is the mature and responsible way in which l’Arche has commissioned and published this report. It is unsparing in its interrogation of its founding father. And this exercise in unflinching honesty has probably saved the communities from the fallout of his wrongdoing.

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It has taught me a difficult lesson about spiritual charisma. Of all the people I could imagine to be an abuser, Vanier was the least likely. He was exactly what I imagined a good person to look like. And so, I am going to have to learn to go forward with a great deal more scepticism about my heroes. Darkness also lurks where one least expects it.

The trick will be to learn how to combine trust with… well, what’s the word? Suspicion? Though that way of presenting the problem already indicates how impossible the task seems. For if someone like Vanier was untrustworthy, then I no longer know who is worthy of trust. Must I from now on look at people who do great good in the world and wonder to myself whether maybe, just maybe, they too are something different to how they seem? Cynics will think that I have seen the light. They think this sort of suspicion is the basis of a more worldly wisdom.

But this isn’t the light. This is darkness.

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