LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese has written Pope Francis threatening to quit the Catholic Church if it comes to light the Vatican “failed to act to protect members of the L’Arche community” from the organization’s founder Jean Vanier.
Vanier founded L’Arche in 1964 to work with the intellectually disabled under a community model where those with disabilities and the people who assist them live together. Although Vanier was Catholic, L’Arche isn’t affiliated with any religious denomination.
Vanier died at the age of 90 on May 7, 2019. After his death, Francis thanked God for his ministry and called him a “great witness.”
On Feb. 22, L’Arche International issued a statement announcing that after receiving credible complaints that Vanier had sexually abused at least six women under the pretext of spiritual counseling.
In a Feb. 26 letter to the pope published on her personal website, McAleese said she was “disturbed by aspects” of the L’Arche investigation into Vanier which “implicate the Holy See in a way that demands explanation.”
The former Irish president pointed to Vanier’s relationship with Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, who himself was implicated in the sexual abuse of women during spiritual counseling from the 1950’s.
“Given that vulnerable men and women were the intended beneficiaries of L’Arche and that Vanier was consistently lauded by the Church at the highest level without the remotest suggestion that there was anything worrying in his character it is essential that the Holy See now explains how it came to so publicly commend a man whose predatory proclivities it was aware of,” McAleese writes.
“What steps if any did the Holy See take to interrupt the growth of the powerful cult of Vanier by warning the many good men and women who trusted him in good faith that he had an alarming past?”
McAleese served as president of Ireland – a largely ceremonial position – from 1997-2011 and has a canon law degree from Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. She has clashed with Church leaders in the past, and was barred from attending a conference taking place at the Vatican in 2018. A longtime critic of the Church’s position on human sexuality, the former president, who long described herself as pro-life, admitted she voted to change Ireland’s constitutional prohibition on abortion in a 2018 referendum.
In her letter to Francis, McAleese said she had regarded Vanier as an inspirational leader for decades, and found the revelations about his abuse “devastating,” but added it was “even worse” to discover the Vatican had been aware since the 1950’s of “his malevolent proclivities” as well as those of Phillipe.
“I have no doubt that L’Arche will recover and continue its great work for it has its owns integrity which is more than capable of transcending the Vanier betrayal. I am not so sure about whether trust in the Holy See will recover so easily,” she said.
“Many times in recent years I have had reason to despair at the failures at papal, episcopal and Curial level regarding the protection of vulnerable children and the vindication of victims. Rebuilding trust is a work in the very early stages of progress,” McAleese continued. “If however it transpires that the Holy See failed to act to protect members of the L’Arche community by alerting them to the known predatory activities of Vanier and Philippe I have to say that this will be my final line of least resistance. I could not in conscience continue to support an institution capable of such gross negligence.”
In her letter, McAleese said the Vatican needs to “set out clearly” its relationship with Vanier and Philippe and the organizations they set up, including L’Arche.
“I hope the Holy See has credible answers to these questions which will help restore trust but that is unlikely to happen unless and until it clarifies its role or roles in this appalling affair,” she said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.