We’ve had over a week to process the news that Jean Vanier sexually abused six women. I still am feeling such sadness at how evil taints everything. We can be left questioning all the good we thought we had perceived before the revelation of this evil, and it IS right for us to re-evaluate now that we have this new and unholy perspective to consider. It has hurt the L’Arche communities to discover this, and it hurts us, as the body of Christ, to see another leader succumb terribly to sin.
I have not read the report; I doubt that I will. There are aspects that sound too similar to my own experience of sexual abuse by a member of clergy. I know better now what things may trigger me and put me in a bad place. But I’ve read the statement. I believe most of you have as well, and if you have not, you can find it at LArche.org.
I’ve seen a few responses of people that cause me to feel terribly uncomfortable — so much so that I feel that it’s necessary to say this unequivocally: Jean Vanier’s sins are horrible and are fully condemnable. There is a tendency in society … maybe in humanity … to think and say things like, “But he was so nice,” “Look at all the good he did,” “He never acted that way toward me,” “They’re just saying that to take attention away from all the positive things that he did, and the role model he was to so many.”
I want to strongly caution away from this response. Both realities can be true, but the good that was done in no way validates the evil. In nearly every case, both realities are true. Your own personal experience of a person can be vastly different from someone else’s experience. That’s no reason to invalidate or downplay someone’s sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is real, and when it happens it is not likely to be evident to you unless you’re the one being abused. Especially if you’re not looking for signs of it (and even if you are, it is difficult to detect). And sexual abuse is damaging.
A Worthy Organization
In this specific case, L’Arche International contracted a third-party company to investigate the claims of sexual abuse against their founder. I assume this was so that they could do their due diligence to the victims and to keep their own hopes from possibly influencing the results. This has perhaps been one of the first times I’ve seen an organisation seem to choose to do something the right way and take the narrow road. I commend L’Arche International for doing this and wish that more bishops would be willing to do so for their diocese, especially in high profile cases.
Due to it being a third-party investigation, we can be assured that the L’Arche organisation has taken the claims seriously enough to not hide, downplay, or deny the reality. They have shown in this that they are willing to risk the hurt and damage to the good works they do because they have recognized the sins their founder has done. They recognize the need to be rid of sin, wherever it has crept in, and to condemn it. If they, who were closest to him are able to do this, we have even less reason to avoid condemning the sin.
What Do We Say?
Yes, Jean Vanier started a movement of dignity and respect for people in a very vulnerable state of life. We can be grateful for this. This should not mean that we say “good works cover a multitude of sins” (and yes, I did read this as someone’s response). How hurtful, to basically say, “Hey, I’m sorry that you were sexually abused in the confines of spiritual direction, but he did a lot of good works!”
While we can acknowledge the works that were good that came out of his ministry, it is wrong to belittle the experience of abuse by comparing them. Especially if any of these women ended up lost in faith or disillusioned with the Church because of this. We are also reminded that when we lead others into sin, it is like a millstone is tied around our necks (Luke 17:1-2). It should never be taken lightly or ignored.
L’Arche has condemned the actions, lies, and secrecy of their founder. Time will tell if his sins have infiltrated and tainted the good work that L’Arche does, but I take it as a sign of hope that L’Arche has boldly come out with this information so publicly and without secrecy. They have respected the claims of the women who were abused and investigated in an honorable way. We will wait to see how this continues to unfold. Matthew 13:24-30 tells us that the weeds and the wheat will be grown together. We may never know the depths of these sins’ influence in the organization, but we can hope that the wheat will not die out because of the weeds.
What Do We Do?
We can pray for the victims, who are still healing from this painful experience. I have not read what L’Arche is providing them, but I hope they are being given the best counsel available to heal from this wound. Sexual abuse, especially when mixed with spirituality and faith (spiritual abuse), can cause great, great harm. It is our duty to also pray for them and their healing. It is our duty not to shy away from recognizing this has happened and that it is horrible. If L’Arche themselves can do it, so can we.
We can pray for Jean Vanier’s soul, as he will be accountable for his sins. This has not escaped God’s eye. The women Jean Vanier abused were precious to God and it is not what God wanted for them. None of us can say where Jean Vanier’s soul rests: in praying for him, let us hope that he came to realize his need for God’s great mercy before his death. There is no more that we can say but to offer it all to God and plead that His good might shine through all this.
Copyright 2020 Jane Korvemaker