Jean Vanier, the Geneva-born Canadian founder of L’Arche – one of the world’s most famous organisations for the physically and intellectually disabled – has been “credibly” accused of the sexual abuse of at least six women.

– “Manipulative” sexual relationships over 35 years

The Canadian Globe and Mail reported February 21 that it has had access to an independent investigation into Vanier, a devout Catholic who until he died last May at the age of 90 was an eternal candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work for community- and not asylum-based housing for the disabled.

Vanier had also been friends with the likes of Pope John Paul II – who awarded him the International Paul VI Award in 1997 – and with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The investigation accuses Vanier of having had coercive and “manipulative” sexual relationships with a number of L’Arche lay assistants and nuns over the course of 35 years, between 1970 and 2005.

The report also alleges Vanier shared sexual partners and “mystical” sexual practices with Thomas Philippe, the Dominican priest censured for his sex abuse by the Vatican as early as 1952 and who was Vanier’s “spiritual father” and inspiration for L’Arche.

Philippe was found in 2015 to have committed himself acts of serious sexual abuse against 14 women.

None of Vanier’s alleged victims are thought to have been disabled themselves, the people Vanier dedicated his life to and whom he lived amongst until his death in 2019.

– “You are chosen, you are special, this is secret”

The report to which the Globe and Mail has had access was drawn up by UK-based GCPS Consulting, experts in the investigation and prevention of sexual abuse, at the request of Stefan Posner, the international leader of L’Arche.

Posner commissioned the inquiry into Vanier after women in 2016 and 2019 – while the founder of L’Arche was still alive – accused of him of having maintained non-consensual sexual relationships with them.

The GCPS report into Vanier concluded that as far back as 1952 Vanier and Philippe had been sharing sexual partners including in situations of what they termed “mystical” or “spiritual accompaniment”.

One alleged nun victim of Vanier, describing his unwanted sexual advances, said: “When I expressed my astonishment saying that I was consecrated to Jesus, and how could I manifest my love to Jesus and to him, he replied: ‘But Jesus and myself, this is not two, but we are one … It is Jesus who loves you through me'”.

To another victim Vanier is alleged to have said: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret”.

That reference to the Virgin is not the only biblical imagery with which Vanier is accused of having justified his abuse, referring on other occasions to the lovers in the Song of Songs, for example.

It was all part of a pattern of abusive behaviour on the part of the founder of the L’Arche communities for the disabled in which he “crossed boundaries which are expected and necessary when people are in a relationship of trust” and which was “characterized by significant abuses of power, whereby the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will”, according to the GCPS report.

Another women allegedly subjected to Vanier’s abuse told investigators: “I was like frozen… I realized that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living saint … I found it difficult to raise the issue”.

– L’Arche International “shocked”, “unreservedly condemns” founder’s behaviour

The leaders of L’Arche International, Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, wrote in a letter to their members today that they are “shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions”.

Posner and Cates Carney wrote that Vanier’s abuse was “in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier claimed and are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and integrity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based”.

In addition, L’Arche sources quoted by the Irish Times have described the new accusations against the founder of the organisation for the disabled as “devastating, just bloody devastating” and “very disappointing”.

For its part, L’Arche USA said in a statement also today that the GCPS report’s findings against Vanier “are shocking and saddening”.

“We strongly condemn any behavior that violates the emotional and physical integrity of others”, L’Arche USA stated.

L’Arche USA added: “We acknowledge the incredible courage of the witnesses who testified during this investigation.

“The bravery of these women calls us to recognize the importance of truth-telling and its alignment with our core values.

“While many questions will yet be answered in the coming months and years, we stand today on the side of those who have been harmed”.

For their part, the Bishops of France, where L’Arche began, also today expressed their “shock and pain” at the allegations against Vanier, and thanked the alleged victims of the founder of L’Arche for their “courage to speak of what they suffered”.

The French Bishops also expressed their “determination to act so that light is shed” on the allegations against Vanier.

L’Arche operates 154 communities in 38 countries worldwide and counts more than 10,000 people among its members.

In addition, the interdenominational Faith and Light organisation Vanier founded in 1971 to help people with learning difficulties has more than 1,600 communities in 80 countries.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.