Jean Vanier’s Feet of Clay

The news that Jean Vanier, who died in May 2019, sexually abused six women surely devastated his followers and admirers around the world, including, one assumes, the L’Arche community in Iron Mines, Cape Breton. (I made an effort to contact them but heard nothing back after leaving a message.)

The news broke as a result of an inquiry launched by L’Arche International in 2019. As Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney of L’Arche International, explained in a February 22 letter to all L’Arche community members:

Last June, we informed you of our decision to initiate an inquiry for which we ‘commissioned an external agency to conduct a thorough and independent investigation that will allow us to better understand our history, to improve our work in preventing abuse and thus to improve our own current policies and practices’.

The investigation was deemed necessary in 2015, after the Federation of L’Arche learned that the Dominican scholar Father Thomas Philippe, Vanier’s “spiritual father” who led him to found the organization, had “abused adult women, without disabilities, while he was in L’Arche.” Vanier, write Posner and Cates-Carney, “asserted his ignorance” of the abuse and “never disclosed the reality of his close relationship to Father Thomas during the 1950s.” But:

As early as the 1950s, and contrary to what he told us, Jean Vanier, was aware of many of the significant reasons for the 1956 canonical trial and the condemnation by the Catholic Church of Father Thomas Philippe because of his theories that were described as “ false mysticism” and of the sexual practices that derived from these theories…

Indeed, Jean Vanier who was still a young man at that time, was in a close and trusting relationship with Father Thomas Philippe, and would have shared some of the sexual practices initiated by Father Philippe, with women who described themselves as consenting by various consistent sources of evidence to which we have had access.

Father Thomas Philippe was condemned by the Church and banned from further contact with “a small group that include Jean Vanier.” Despite the ban, Posner and Cates-Carney say Philippe and several women “remained connected until the founding of L’Arche in 1964” and some became members of the community in Trosly, France, where the organization began.

But worst, as far as concerns Vanier himself, is the revelation that the inquiry received:

…credible and consistent testimonies covering the period from 1970 to 2005 from six adult women without disabilities that were not related to the above group. The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual behaviours with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Some of these women have been deeply wounded by these experiences. Jean Vanier asked each of the women to keep the nature of these events secret.

Posner and Cates-Carney say Vanier’s actions were “indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold Jean Vanier had on these women” and revealed “his own adoption of some of Father Thomas Philippe’s deviant theories and practices which he continued over a long period of time.”


I had decided not to make this piece an attack on Vanier because I was one of who-knows-how-many who believed him to be a wonderful, caring man who saw the value and worth of those among us with mental or physical disabilities. A few of my friends who have been or still are involved with L’Arche are good people who had total faith in Vanier and worked to support his organization, whether here in Cape Breton (where L’Archie was founded by Tom and Anne Gunn in Iron Mines on 1983) or in Antigonish or Halifax, where L’Arche communities have existed for many years.

But it’s hard to ignore his hypocrisy. In a May 2015 letter to the inquiry into the actions of Father Thomas Philippe, Vanier said he had “become aware of the accusations against Thomas” and was “overwhelmed and unable to understand how this could have happened.” He was claimed to be “shocked” that the charges came “so long after his death,” although he later admits that “a few years ago I was told of certain acts, but until now I was totally in the dark as to the depth of their gravity.”

Vanier makes a point of mentioning that Thomas “had hurt mature, intelligent people who appear to have placed all of their trust in him,” which, to my mind, seems to suggest that they were responsible and should have known better. In a second letter, written in October 2016, Vanier wrote:

I realize today, with all the revelations we have received, what sort of sexual perversion was at play within him, at that time and then later when he was at La Ferme when I founded l’Arche. I was totally unaware at the time. I was simply oblivious to the fact that he was making use of a certain Marian spirituality in such a perverse manner, as the subsequent testimonies revealed. Through his repeated and reprehensible acts, Père Thomas has shattered the trust that I had in him.

Father Philippe’s “Marian spirituality” saw him persuading his victims (as did Vanier, by the way) that they were participating in acts that would have been approved of by Jesus.

Vanier, responding to questions as to why he never spoke out about Thomas’ sexual abuse, or condemned him for it, talks of how it was so difficult for him to understand all that had transpired concludes:

I cannot judge Pere Thomas; God alone can judge. Jesus is merciful and he forgives in his love. When I am in the place of “I do not understand” and “non-judgement”, I am at peace — without searching to know more — dwelling in Jesus who is at the heart of L’Arche and at the heart of my life.

“At peace — without searching to know more.” How convenient! At least, before he was called out in the latest inquiry report.

Of course, many of our heroes turn out to have feet of clay and Vanier is no exception. His work with L’Arche, though, can’t be ignored or dismissed. The L’Arche communities will survive and continue to serve their residents with the attention and love they have always offered. Vanier recognized their worth and is truly responsible for having created a place where they are valued and appreciated, thanks to those who share their lives on a daily basis.

When we were kids studying catechism, we would often come up with questions for the instructor, one of our favorites being:

If people do all sorts of bad things and then, just before they die, they say they’re sorry, will they go to Heaven?

The answer, as I recall, was:

Only after spending a long time in Purgatory.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.