With Sex Abuser Jean Vanier, There Were Problem Signs for Years
Editor’s Note: Though largely unknown to Americans, Vanier’s fall from modern day saint to creepy sexual predator is painfully relevant to us all. We tend to ignore or dismiss the weaknesses in our heroes when they accomplish so much good. Until that is, those faults are no longer deniable and great damage has been done. The lesson for us moving forward is: What can we learn from what we missed? In Vanier’s case, his departure from orthodoxy and lack of spiritual oversight should have been obvious clues.
If you grew up Canadian and Catholic, Jean Vanier was a household name. A dozen Catholic schools were named for him while still alive. He won all manner of worldly awards. The list begins with the Order of Canada and the Templeton Prize — and the admiration that comes with them.
In November 2004, despite having been born in Switzerland and living most of his life in France, a CBC poll put him at No. 12 on a list of Greatest Canadians. His New York Times obituary in May 2019 lionized him as “Savior of People on the Margins.”
Having read a couple of his early books, I was moved by the man’s gentle vision for caring for people with mental disabilities. Many times I heard the founding myth of L’Arche. That’s the international federation of group homes for the handicapped he started in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil, outside Paris. I was in awe in his presence at two different conferences in the mid-’80s. At the latter, I met and spoke with him briefly.
When Vanier lit up a room, or strode casually up to a lectern before a crowd, his regal face beamed. His tall frame seemed to radiate peace. For a child of elite political privilege, he seemed legit, to say the least.
But we now know that he was a serial sexual abuser.
It is indisputable that, from 1970 to 2005, he skillfully leveraged his “living saint” reputation to manipulate and sexually abuse six adult women. This he did under the cover of spiritual direction, according to the refreshingly blunt Summary Report issued by L’Arche International on February 22, 2020.
Hindsight is 20/20
In retrospect, there were certain tells that got past most admirers. In retrospect they seem obvious.
First, none of his 30 books were ever published by orthodox Catholic publishers. No, only small niche publishers or left-tilting houses like Paulist Press, Twenty-Third Publishers, Franciscan Media. That is, the sort popular with the graying, liberal National Catholic Reporter crowd. Since the news broke, I am amazed at how few of my conservative Catholic friends in the United States have ever heard of him.
And while Vanier declined to be interviewed on EWTN radio, with its international audience, he accepted hundreds of secular radio interviews and NPRish podcasts. For example, he had a wince-inducing 2007 discussion with Kristy Tippett about “pleasure and desire.”
Second, Jean Vanier had no love for Catholic teaching. Certainly not in concrete terms regarding chastity. Most of the off-hand references to the Catholic Church in his books and talks chide the Church for being rule-based, non-inclusive, rigid or what have you. Examples abound in his work. In a 2016 radio interview on the CBC, he seemed sympathetic to doctor-assisted suicide. When asked about it by journalist John Paul Meehan, Vanier doubled-down and clarified his dissent from Catholic teaching.
Neither cleric nor evangelist, Vanier was a vaguely Catholic “humanitarian” who remained diffident toward doctrine. Theology was either dangerous to him, or just irrelevant. The Church was the problem to the degree it failed to live up to his standard of care for the mentally handicapped. The global reach of L’Arche, the emotional appeal of his talks and the photo-op endorsement of popes seemed to prove his point.
He Leaned on His Own Understanding of Good and Evil
Third, again with 20/20 hindsight, there was an obvious motive to avoid elaborating on the very “rules” he was secretly violating over and over. He carefully collaborated with fellow heterodox figures only. He facilitated fawning documentaries about himself, like the treacly “Jean Vanier: the Sacrament of Tenderness.” His biggest boosters tend be more sentimentalist and less doctrinal. Take for example, his best known protégé, Father Henri Nouwen; the stoutly liberal Ron Rolheiser, OMI; or the fawning biographer of both Vanier and Nouwen, Professor Michael Higgins.
Essentially a one-book man, Vanier returned often to the same vague themes: vulnerability, the need for community, anguish, “becoming human,” (never quite defined apart from platitudes), weakness, brokenness, fear and the like. Your typical Vanier book preaches service over faith, humility over truth, the heart over the mind, compassion over doctrine, the journey over the destination — all hallmarks of his thinking, all false alternatives.
Vanier chose the single life, which we saw as an heroic example of celibacy lived out for the sake of the Kingdom. Not as a cover to bed hurt women under the guise of spiritual direction. This direction included bizarre and frankly demonic language about “this is Jesus and Mary,” and the “rest of the world does not understand.”
Turns out, he learned all of it from his disgraced Dominican mentor, although one victim testified that the latter was “more brutal.”
Odd Choices of Heroes
One of his last books, Life’s Great Questions shows how far he had strayed. Take Communism, for instance. After assuring the reader that “this is not a book about answers,” he writes, without irony: “It is astonishing how detached we can become from reality. Communism, for example, is, in and of itself, a beautiful vision of people living together, sharing their life and wealth.”On the devil, Vanier asks, “Can we say that evil originated by a rupture in heaven between God and His angels? I cannot say. Humanity has been looking into this question forever, but we never get satisfying answers. Wisdom is to be very humble. We don’t know too much. But perhaps it does not matter.”
Who are his heroes? Any mention of the saints or doctors of the Church? Sorry, no. Apart from a nod to social justice activist Dorothy Day, he praises the Communist Nelson Mandela, the Hindu Vanadana Shiva, the Muslim Malala Yousafzai, the Jewish Etty Hillesum, the Pashtun Abdul Ghaffār Khān, and the Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi. This kind of careful virtue-signalling reflects a lifelong reluctance to be identified with orthodox Christianity.
L’Arche’s Priorities in Hiring an “International Leader” are Telling
Fourth, if L’Arche gave the impression of being Catholic in theory and ecumenical in practice, even that is gone. According to a 2017 leadership candidate memo the organization today makes no bones about its priorities.
That memo was sent to L’Arche members around the world from the International Nomination Committee. Its prime International Leader candidate in 2017 is Stephan Posner, a Jewish businessman who ran into L’Arche later in life. That the father-of-four Posner is separated from his wife and openly lives with “his partner Yael” was no obstacle to him getting the job.
The bona fides for Stacy Cates-Carney as Vice International leader emphasize her leadership role at the big LGBTQ2 Jesuit parish in Seattle, which, well, says it all. A word search finds no mention of the words Church, Scripture, Catholic, Jesus, Christ, Christian, or Gospel, but “encounter” appears five times, “Jesuit” appears five times and “spiritual” nine times. You get the picture.
Vanier’s “10 Rules for Life”
A few months before he died, Vanier did a televised bedside interview. The two off-camera interviewers are Anne Gerken and Pauline Dejoie — both, unsurprisingly, attractive young L’Arche staffers. It’s called “10 Rules for Life.”
A few of his Rules:
Rule One: Accept the Reality of Your Body. As subject matters go, a fitting start for an expert manager of admiring females. Watch for yourself. What does this pseudo-profundity even mean?
Rule Nine: Listen to Your Deepest Desire and Follow It. If you want to know where this New Agey “follow your bliss” advice can lead to, ask an addict.
Rule Ten: Remember That You’ll Die One Day. Here is the most depressing part of all. Here he is, in poor health at 90 years of age. And what’s his message? The salvation given by Jesus? Regrets in life? Sins to avoid? Purgatory? Again, sorry. His message is almost agnostic, and it side-steps the transcendent altogether.
“We’re all here,’ he calmly intones, “but we’re just local people, passengers in a journey; we get into the train, we get out of the train, the train goes on. Humanity has been going on for millions of years. And here we are today in the year 2000-and-whatever-it-is, and the world will continue when I’m no longer there.”
That’s it. Roll credits.
Of course, plausible deniability here about grooming is easy to find. (Fish for victims when he knows he’s on camera?) And yet, he keeps nudging the conversation into a kind of ambiguous no man’s land that, over time, could be used to identify a point of entry for the psychological hold he was skilled at gaining. In the Gerken/Dejoie session, one detects the same spirit of — what is it? subsurface flirtation? — that characterizes his Krista Tippett interview.
“I Have Been Worried About You”
One woman who detected something amiss with Vanier was Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the Russian-born author and co-founder of the Madonna House ministry. She was instrumental in the conversion of a young Thomas Merton. In a personal letter dated August 27, 1974 — four years after the earliest known of Vanier’s offenses — Catherine, in the midst of effusive affirmations, voices an unnamed concern. It’s a bit cryptic.
Doherty was known for her gift for reading the signs of the time. In Jean Vanier, she saw “fragmentation,” she wrote, something off and yet “intangible” that “bothers” her. She recommends that he “rest” and “spare himself.” Perhaps there are other letters extant. But this one is telling. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1976 for her service to the poor around the world. Vanier won the same medal in 1986, the year after she died.
Fast forward to 2008, when the greatest mass murderer in Canadian history, abortionist Henry Morgentaler, was also given the Order of Canada. The staff at Madonna House wasted no time in returning Catherine’s medal in protest. Vanier, cultivating what journalist David Warren has called an aggressively benign look, hemmed and hawed about the need to be compassionate, and kept his.
Ideally positioned to be a powerful spokesman for the pro-life movement — as his acquaintance St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was, every chance she got — Vanier simply wasn’t into it. Not that he was a pro-abortion ideologue. He just kept the whole uncomfortableness at a safe barge-pole distance.
His Most Fitting Accolade
Absent any new revelations, Jean Vanier died as he lived: unrepentant while trading on mercy, remote and superficial while projecting closeness and depth. God willing, the important work of L’Arche will somehow continue to serve the most vulnerable among us. His victims, and the faithful who admired him, deserved far better.
One of his honors came in 2010 from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, when asteroid 8604 was named Vanier. What is an asteroid but a celestial something that moves virtually undetected and, if not spotted early, is capable of inflicting great damage?
Of his many accolades, perhaps Asteroid Vanier is the most fitting.
For more on lessons to be drawn from Vanier’s tragic deception, see “When Our Heroes Turn Out to Be Monsters” from Stream senior editor David Mills.