The response in some corners was rapid. On Sunday, the University of Notre Dame revoked two awards given to Vanier. In 1994, the school had given him the Notre Dame Award, and in 2014, the school’s Kellogg Institute had given him the Ford Family Notre Dame Award for International Development and Solidarity, the school said in a statement Monday. The Rev. John Jenkins, the university’s president, said, “The L’Arche report was thorough, rigorous and fair.”
One of the women described to investigators the power that Vanier had over her and others: “I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint.”
Tina Bovermann, executive director of L’Arche in the United States, wrote in a letter to supporters that she shared the news with “pain and resolve. … Resolve, because truth matters. Resolve, because the value of every person matters. Always. Unconditionally.”
Her letter continued: “At L’Arche, dignity matters: we believe in the inherent value of every human being. We are determined to reflect on what we believed to be true about L’Arche’s founder and L’Arche’s founding story. … We stand today on the side of those who have been harmed.”
The organization’s investigation also found that Vanier was aware of inappropriate sexual conduct by his mentor, the late Rev. Thomas Philippe, possibly as early as the 1950s.
Neither Philippe nor Vanier had sexual relationships with the adults with disabilities whom L’Arche serves, the group said.
“Branding in the Catholic Church isn’t at its best in recent decades. We need prominent figures of personal integrity,” said Michael Higgins, a professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut who has written a biography of Vanier and a book on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. “Jean Vanier was one of those figures, unbesmirched by scandal — all of that now has been profoundly compromised.”
Vanier, who considered the priesthood but decided on life as a lay Catholic, founded L’Arche in France in 1964 after visiting mental institutions where he said he was horrified by the conditions for the patients. His vision was homes where people with intellectual disabilities could live in a community with non-disabled adults who would help them.
He began living with two men with disabilities and applying the concept worldwide. At the time of his death, L’Arche operated 154 communities in 38 countries, including houses in Washington, D.C., Arlington, Va., and Frederick, Md.
In April, a month before Vanier’s death, leaders of L’Arche hired a consulting firm to investigate two women’s reports that Vanier had been involved in inappropriate relationships with them. Duringthe investigation, the consultants — who interviewed more than 30 people — learned of four more women who alleged harmful sexual relationships with Vanier.
The women did not know one another or know about each other’s allegations, the report stated. The abuse took place between 1970 and 2005. Some of the women were single, some were married, and at least one had taken a religious vow of celibacy.
What they had in common was that Vanier, who never married, held great psychological sway over them, the report stated. Often, he was their spiritual adviser. “The relationships … are described as emotionally abusive and characterised by significant imbalances of power, whereby the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions,” the report stated.
One victim said Vanier told her: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
Leaders of L’Arche learned in 2014 about the allegations concerning Vanier’s mentor Philippe, who died in 1993. They asked Vanier whether he knew that Philippe had been sanctioned by Catholic leaders in 1956 for inappropriate sexual conduct or whether he was otherwise aware of Philippe’s behavior, and Vanier said publicly in 2015 and 2016 that he had not known.
But when L’Arche hired a historian to review 184 letters from Philippe to Vanier and other documentary evidence as part of its investigation, the group concluded that Vanier had known, seemingly as early as the 1950s.
Vanier’s method of sexually grooming women he was spiritually advising and telling them that the sex was a religious action echoed what Philippe was accused of. One woman told the investigators she went to Philippe to complain about Vanier’s actions, and Philippe sexually assaulted her. “It started with him, the same as with Jean Vanier,” the woman said. “He was not tender like Jean Vanier. More brutal, no intercourse, same words to say that I am special and that all this is about Jesus and Mary.”
During his lifetime, Vanier drew effusive praise and many accolades for his work. In Canada, at least 10 elementary and secondary schools are named for him.
In recent years, his life was the subject of several hagiographic books — glowing biographies usually written about the lives of saints — and a documentary. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, writing about a 2019 book, said: “Every time one meets Jean Vanier, one has a sense of new horizons opening up, of a new vision opening before one’s eyes of what it is to be human and of what it is to be in a community.”
Kathryn Spink, who wrote one of the biographies of Vanier, wrote in an email to The Washington Post on Sunday, “This is not the Jean I knew and I believe it vital to remember that … his brokenness was the wellspring for enormous good, and that the message and indeed the miracle of L’Arche is precisely the fruitfulness of brokenness. As Mother Teresa always used to say, the extraordinary achievements of ordinary, imperfect human instruments is evidence of the involvement of God.”
Higgins, of Sacred Heart, said he would never have written his Vanier biography had he known about the abuse, which he called “shattering.” He said that Vanier, busy writing books and leading spiritual communities, handed over most of the management of L’Arche International to others beginning in the late 1970s. Today, Higgins has been getting calls from leaders of L’Arche homes. “They feel betrayed,” he said, but he praised the organization for its handling of the news.
L’Arche’s leaders said they knew the revelations would be painful to many.
“For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world,” the group’s international leaders Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney wrote in a letter. “L’Arche will not have a future if we are not able to look at our past with clear eyes. What we learn today is a huge blow and a cause of great confusion but what we lose in certainty, we hope to gain in terms of maturity, and to step into the future of L’Arche with greater justice, insight and freedom.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there is a L’Arche community in Alexandria. In fact, there are two in Arlington.