L’Arche’s values of accompaniment, vulnerability, and mutuality are bigger than Jean Vanier
Such values have shadow sides. They are also desperately needed in the world.
When Jean Vanier died last May, tributes poured in. He was praised (including in these pages) for the vision that inspired more than 150 L’Arche communities—each built around “core members” with intellectual disabilities—and in turn the wider church and world.
But an investigation into Vanier, initiated by L’Arche International before he died, was recently made public (see news story). Six women, including former L’Arche community members (not core members), allege that Vanier sexually abused them. Their stories are notably similar, and the inquiry found no reason to doubt them. It also revealed that when Thomas Philippe, Vanier’s mentor, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 1956, Vanier knew that one reason was Philippe’s own abuse of women—yet he cleared a path for Philippe’s involvement with L’Arche anyway. For decades, Vanier used his status at L’Arche to harm others.
He also appears to have weaponized his own influential ideas. L’Arche values spiritual accompaniment: community members are expected to accompany others, and be accompanied themselves, in relationships emphasizing mutuality that transcends status. Several women report that Vanier initiated sexual contact within an accompaniment context. “I was frozen,” one reported. “I was unable to distinguish what was right and what was wrong. . . . He told me that this was part of the accompaniment.”