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L'Arche probe discloses abuses by founder

L'Arche International, which supports people with learning disabilities, announced its late founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused six women in France.

GENEVA (AN) — L'Arche International, a French international organization that supports people with learning disabilities, announced on Saturday that its late founder, Jean Vanier, had sexually abused six women in France over several decades.

Vanier, who founded L'Arche in 1964 and died last year at age 90, coerced the six women into having "manipulative" sexual relationships with him that left them greatly damaged and in need of psychological therapy for years, the organization said in announcing its findings based on an independent inquiry. The findings did not rule out the possibility of more victims coming to light in the future.

"The inquiry received credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005. The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment," L'Arche said in a statement.

"Although they had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviors," the organization said. "The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships."

The leaders of L’Arche sent a letter to the Federation of L’Arche Communities, which operates in 38 nations, publishing the results of an independent inquiry conducted by U.K.-based GCPS Consulting, a firm that specializes in helping organizations ensure the safety of children and other vulnerable groups.

L'Arche noted the inquiry since 2019 had found similarities between Vanier's behavior and the pattern of abuses carried out by the late Rev. Thomas Philippe, a Dominican Catholic priest who Vanier considered to be "his spiritual father."  Several women had accused Philippe, who died in 1993, of sexual abuse.

“We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based," the leaders of L'Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, wrote to the federation.

"We recognize the courage and suffering of these women, and of any others who may not have spoken up. We also want to express our gratitude to the women who, by speaking out a few years ago about Father Thomas Philippe, helped others to liberate themselves of a burden of shame and suffering they did not deserve to be carrying," they wrote. "To all of them, we ask forgiveness for these events which took place in the context of L’Arche, some of which were caused by our founder."

Shattered image

Vanier, who was born in Geneva to Canadian parents, grew up in Canada, France and the United Kingdom. His father, a diplomat and major general, was Governor General of Canada until the 1960s. After helping Nazi concentration camp survivors and serving in the British and Canadian navies, Vanier earned a doctorate in philosophy at Paris, wrote dozens of books, then left academia to launch L'Arche.

Vanier won wide praise as a venerated Catholic charity founder and living saint for his work to improve conditions for people with learning disabilities. Vanier narrated and appeared in a 2017 documentary, "Summer in the Forest," that focused on his work. Pope Francis called Vanier a week before his death on May 7, 2019 to thank him for his longtime charity and service work.

As an umarried layman who was not a priest, Vanier was not subject to the Catholic Church's sanctions imposed on the priests, bishops and cardinals credibly accused in its global child sexual abuse scandal.

The Catholic Church usually considers sexual relations between men and women to be consensual unless there is a disability that makes a person vulnerable. In Vanier's case, none of the women he is accused of manipulating had a disability — underscoring the #MeToo movement's spotlight on abuses of power.

Vanier's public image had been that of a global moral beacon and likely future Catholic saint. The investigation into his behavior came about because of earlier allegations that L'Arche officials had begun receiving in 2014 from women alleging that they were sexually abused by Philippe. With the release of the findings of its investigation into Vanier, L'Arche firmly shattered his long-cultivated image.

"Ten thousand people in L'Arche communities around the world live together in the truth that people with disabilities are our friends and teachers," said Kate Bowler, an associate professor and historian at Duke University's Divinity School. "My prayer is that as the horror of Jean Vanier's manipulation is exposed that those communities continue to receive shelter."