Shattered: Catholic community confronts its founder's lies
ROCCA DI PAPA, Italy (AP) — The findings of an initial expert report were astonishing: One of the 20th century’s revered Catholic leaders, who built an international movement of community care for people with intellectual disabilities, perverted Catholic doctrine about Jesus and Mary to justify his own sexual compulsions and abuse women.
The findings of a second report were even worse: The movement he created had at its core a secret, mystical-sexual “sect,” and was founded for the precise purpose of hiding the sect’s deviant activities from church authorities.
The two rounds of revelations about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche federation he founded have rocked the group to its core, all the more because L'Arche itself commissioned independent scholars to investigate after receiving a first complaint from a victim a few years before Vanier died in 2019. It’s the latest case of a Catholic giant, considered a living saint by his admirers and eulogized as a “great” Christian by Pope Francis, falling to revelations that he abused his power to sexually exploit women under his spiritual sway.
L’Arche’s national and regional leaders have been meeting for the past week in the hills outside Rome for the first time since the latest revelations to chart a path forward, now that their official history has been shown to be a lie and their hero-founder Vanier a narcissistic and delusional abuser. Emotions were still raw, as L’Arche’s most devoted staff processed the gravity of Vanier’s deceptions and what it means for the organization’s future, according to interviews at the retreat with The Associated Press.
“I believed in something, in a vision that then is revealed to you and you’re told it’s not like that,” said Azucena Bustamante, who oversees five L’Arche communities in Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “It does frustrate me — the damage it has caused to a lot of people who believed in this, and then found out everything we were made to believe, it’s a lie.”
Vanier, a former Canadian and Royal Navy officer, founded L’Arche in 1964 in northern France. He initially invited two intellectually disabled men to live with him, then built the utopian-style, Catholic-inspired community into an international movement bringing people with and without disabilities to live together in a spirit of mutual respect.
Born to socially prominent, religiously devout parents — his father was governor general of Canada — Vanier arrived at his calling after having joined a spiritual community, L’Eau Vive, in 1950 that was founded by a French Dominican priest, the Rev. Thomas Philippe.
According to the investigative reports, it was at L’Eau Vive that Vanier fell under Philippe’s spell and was initiated into the priest’s mystical-sexual practices.
Philippe developed his twisted theology after experiencing what he called a mystical “grace” one night in 1938 in Rome, while looking at a fresco of the Madonna in the church atop the Spanish Steps. Over time, the “graces” came to involve sexual gratification with women that both Philippe and Vanier justified by claiming that Jesus and Mary were involved in similarly incestuous sexual relationships.
The Vatican was informed of Philippe’s deviant practices by two victims in 1952; four years later it sanctioned Philippe for “false mysticism.” The Vatican forbade him from public or private ministry, ordered L’Eau Vive dissolved and its members forbidden from reconstituting the community.
But Philippe, Vanier and the women they had manipulated disobeyed, and regularly met in secret, according to private correspondence and church archives only recently made available to the L’Arche-commissioned researchers.
Over time, Philippe resumed his priestly ministry as his Dominican superiors ignored the Vatican sanctions, at which point Vanier, a layman, founded L’Arche. The study commission concluded in its January report that Vanier did so as a “screen” to hide the reuniting of the original L’Eau Vive group, even though there was also a sincere commitment to help people who otherwise would have been institutionalized.
The study commission identified at least 25 women whom Vanier abused, none of them intellectually disabled. It determined that Vanier and Philippe’s deviant practices didn’t extend beyond the core “sect” at the original community in northern France. But it called for vigilance, especially in the way authority and power are exercised in L'Arche's more than 150 communities in 37 countries.
L’Arche’s leaders have apologized to the victims, thanked them for their courage in coming forward, and assumed responsibility for not having spotted the abuses earlier. They say they questioned Vanier repeatedly as soon as the first victims came forward, as well as what he knew about Philippe’s 1956 Holy Office condemnation, but that he lied to them.
The nearly 900-page forensic history of the scandal is remarkable, providing perhaps the best documented case of a phenomenon that has existed in the Catholic Church for centuries but is increasingly coming to the public fore: spiritual charlatans using false mysticism to manipulate their victims and abuse them sexually.
Significantly, L’Arche was able to obtain a summary report of Phillipe’s 1956 canonical trial, which shows the Vatican was well-versed in the dynamics of abuse of power over women, decades before the #MeToo movement put it in the spotlight.
But the researchers, who hailed from a variety of academic disciplines, blamed the Vatican’s secrecy in handling the Philippe case for laying the groundwork for L’Arche's scandal. They found that no one except a few Vatican and Dominican superiors knew of Philippe's deviance or his sanctions, “precisely what allowed him to maintain his reputation for holiness and to rewrite history as he pleased.”
One of the Vatican's top experts in abuse prevention, the Rev. Hans Zollner, praised L'Arche for its “fearless” courage in exposing the painful truth about its past and said the phenomenon of spiritual gurus misusing their authority can't be ignored any longer by the church.
“Some time back we did not speak about the abuse of power as the root cause of basically every type of abuse, be it sexual, be psychological, be it spiritual," he said. “But it has become clear that this is something that we need to engage further,” said Zollner, who runs an institute at the Pontifical Gregorian University that trains church personnel on preventing abuse.
The L’Arche community on Rome’s outskirts was buzzing with activity on a recent weekday: After nearly three years of pandemic lockdown, the ceramics studio had recently reopened, volunteers were helping some of the 19 live-in residents decorate Easter baskets and the gardening team was busy recycling wood chips.
Here, where Pope Francis visited in 2016, the revelations of Vanier and L’Arche’s origins have hit longtime staffers hard, though there is no questioning of the fundamentals of the mission, said Loredana Moretti, a 35-year veteran of L'Arche's Il Chicco community and now on its leadership team.
“For sure the investigation shocked all of us at the start,” said Moretti, adding that she now realizes Vanier epitomized a type of charismatic leader: "extreme in the good and in the bad.”
“What’s important is to not make a myth or idealize anyone, including our founder. If we made a myth out of him, we were wrong,” she said.
Such soul-searching was the order of business at the L’Arche leadership retreat a short distance away. It was held in a converted monastery in the hills overlooking Lake Albano, within view of the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo across the lake.
L’Arche leaders were tackling big issues. How to tell its foundational story, now that it wasn’t just about helping disabled people as Vanier claimed. How are power and authority exercised, given the risk that Vanier’s methods trickled down to the next generation. How does L’Arche move forward with its unique spirituality, given Vanier’s writings were found to be problematic once details of his secret life were uncovered.
“As a whole body, the question we have is: Do we tell our story now? What does it look like? It's a broken story," said Stacy Cates-Carney, L’Arche’s vice international leader. She said the revelations had “shattered” L'Arche's understanding of its origins.
Regular audits are now planned to ensure L’Arche’s safeguarding practices are being implemented. Reviews are under way to ensure staffers’ professional, personal and spiritual needs are being met appropriately. And for now, L’Arche staff are being given time to talk and process the revelations.
“We’re in a stage of grief,” Cates-Carney said. “And in grief, people move through that really differently.”
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