New book explores plague of abuse in Church’s new religious movements

New book explores plague of abuse in Church’s new religious movements

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." (Credit: CNS photo/Abramorama.)

In 2017, the man who leads the Vatican’s office for religious congregations acknowledged in an interview that some 70 “new movements” were under investigation for the abusive behavior of their founders.

ROME – In 2017, the man who leads the Vatican’s office for religious congregations acknowledged in an interview that some 70 “new movements” were under investigation for the abusive behavior of their founders.

French journalist Céline Hoyeau, who covers the religion beat for the French Catholic daily La Croix, took this to heart and began investigating many of the men and women who founded new religious movements in the era before and after Second Vatican Council.

The new movements were often considered the source for a “new springtime” for the Catholic Church, amidst a crisis in vocations and a rapid secularization.

Hoyeau captured her findings in the book La Trahison des pères (The Betrayal of the Fathers, Bayard), released in late March in France.

Crux spoke with the French journalist about the book, what inspired her to write it and about the possibility of it being published in English. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: How would you summarize the book for Crux’ readers?

Some of the founders of the new communities, leading charismatic figures in the second half of the twentieth century in the Catholic Church, were found to have committed abuses (spiritual abuse, abuse of power, sexual abuse). I wanted to understand the reasons for this “fall of the stars” by interviewing victims, former members of these communities and experts: Historians, sociologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, theologians, canonists, bishops …

It seemed to me that a certain context allowed the rise of these charismatic figures who rose to such heights that they no longer met with any counterweight and were able to commit abuse: A context of crisis, of great expectations of renewal for Catholics, and of absence of control.

(Credit: Bayard Culture.)

After the Second Vatican Council, in a period marked by secularization and de-Christianization, some founders were enthusiastic, attracted many vocations, and were successful, at a time when the Church seemed to be losing momentum, when parishes and seminaries were emptying. These new communities seemed to have found the miracle recipe to become the future of the Church. In a context of crisis, these founders appeared as “providential men” capable of “saving the Church” and re-evangelizing society.

These charismatic personalities also met the very strong expectations of Catholics who aspired to clear reference points in the teaching of the faith, a liturgy with a sense of the sacred, the beauty of celebrations, a personal relationship with God and a strong ideal of community and fraternal life. The genius of these founders is to have known how to meet this spiritual quest, to have known how to embody not only a reassuring authority, but also a new way of believing, which gives place to emotion, to affectivity, to tenderness, to the body, to the welcoming of one’s vulnerability.

These founders were considered by these generations of Catholics as being sent by the Holy Spirit: As saints. They locked themselves up in an omnipotence and were able to abuse with impunity, without encountering any opposing forces or effective ecclesial control. If these abuses have been able to continue over time without being denounced, it is in fact also the fault of an entire ecosystem, for which each of the actors bears a share of responsibility and has a role to play today in helping the Church to emerge from them.

Why did you decide to write this book?

As a journalist for the Religions department of La Croix, I was led to investigate from 2013 onwards the founders of communities who had committed abuses (Thierry de Roucy, Mansour Labaky, Marie-Dominique Philippe, Thomas Philippe…). As the revelations of the victims’ testimonies have come to light in recent years, the list has grown longer. I wanted to give the keys for understanding by questioning experts (historians, sociologists, psychotherapists, theologians) in what context and by what mechanisms these figures had such an aura that they were able to abuse with impunity, sometimes for several decades.

As a Christian, I was also marked in my faith journey by several of these figures whose dark side we are discovering today: I was part of the “John Paul II generation” – I was 20 years old at the 1997 World Youth Day in Paris – and I followed various retreats or sessions in these new communities. I shared the amazement, the anger, the sadness, the incomprehension of many Catholics for whom these founders were essential figures (some converted through them, others found an orientation for their lives) and who were shocked, like me, to discover the other side of the story.

These founders had luminous intuitions, good passed through these people whose abuses we are discovering today. This is the paradox and mystery that this book cannot exhaust, nor solve. But it seemed to me necessary to understand these mechanisms that made us admire, let our guards down — even lose all critical sense — in front of these men without any oversight, who tipped over into a certain omnipotence, and serious drifting, in order to draw lessons from it.

Of all the “fathers” that you examined, was there one who you did not expect or who disappointed you the most when you found out? If so, why?

The revelations, in February 2020, of the investigation carried out by L’Arche on Jean Vanier were a shock to all. He was the founder of this organization for people with mental disabilities, which has been established all over the world, was honored by everyone, in the Church and in society.

He was a model of a founder, who had given up his responsibilities as head of his community quite early, in the 1980s, and was very humble, open to all, whatever their religion or condition. He was almost seen as a saint. And when the other founders of the same generation fell one after the other, people said: “At least he was…”

When L’Arche revealed that, contrary to what he had said, that he had been aware since the 1950s of the abuses committed by his spiritual master, Father Thomas Philippe, and that, in addition, he too had led women whom he accompanied spiritually into sexual acts by justifying them with the same deviant mysticism, it caused immense disappointment.

For my part, in 2015, I had met Jean Vanier as I was investigating Philippe and I asked him if he was aware of these abuses, but he had answered that he was not and had not known what to say when I had asked him the question that was going to be at the origin of my book and that, already at that time, was nagging me: How is it that figures like Ephraim, Thierry de Roucy or the Philippe Fathers, who took part in the “springtime of the Church” in the last quarter of the 20th century, could have been abusers?

Jean Vanier was uncomfortable and I left a little disappointed not to have an answer. At the time, I had no idea that he shared the same practices and when I found out, I felt a sense of betrayal.

Marie-Dominique and Thomas Philippe, André-Marie van der Borght, Ephraim, Thierry de Roucy, Jean Vanier … the list of leaders of the “springtime of the Church” who founded these so-called “new movements” but who proved to have committed criminal acts. Why were so many of these able to “get away” with it?

For reasons that have to do both with their personality, often manipulative, and with the non-controlling context in which they emerged. Indeed, there have always been two-faced, abusive personalities, but the context will be conducive or not for them to transgress and abuse. But these founders did not encounter any counterweight outside or inside their community, or they managed to bypass them.

The bishops, for one thing, have not been vigilant. At the time when they took off in the 1970s, most French bishops were more involved in Catholic Action and social struggles, and they looked with a certain amount of mistrust on these founders, who seemed to them to be conservative and attached to outdated forms of piety. Faced with de-Christianization, other bishops are nevertheless happy to welcome into their dioceses these communities which attract many vocations, while their seminaries and parishes are emptying. They are fascinated by these founders.

The Roman authorities have also been blinded by the success of these communities. During the pontificate of John Paul II, who saw in these founders the heralds of the new evangelization, they were fascinated by the hundreds of “Little Greys” who accompanied Father Marie-Dominique Philippe to St. Peter’s every year. So, any complaints that could be traced back to Rome were not taken seriously and dismissed. All the more so because at the time, the word of the victims was not taken into consideration at all in the Church.

But even the bishops who were lucid found themselves powerless: There were some attempts to warn these communities but they met with very strong defensive reactions. In fact, these founders could not have prospered if they had not had in front of them a court of disciples under their influence, who adulated them, who gave them an image of sanctity, who did not see or did not want to see, and who allowed themselves to be deceived in every sense of the word. They defended the founder tooth and nail. Any criticism of their community was discredited, the bishops accused of not understanding the charism of the founder who had received his mission from the Holy Spirit. To attack him was, in essence, to attack Christ. The few members of the community who were critical were marginalized, and those who left were demonized.

The lack of control by the Church is also explained by the fact that these communities claimed a separate framework, new ways of building community life (men/women; singles/couples) in the Church. The rule was drawn up according to the intuitions of the founder, around whom everything revolved. Basically, the rule was him. These communities did not respect the safeguards and checks and balances that are the usual rules of wisdom in the Church (notably the distinction between the internal and external forum, i.e., a community leader cannot spiritually accompany or confess a member of his community, in order to preserve his freedom).

All of this was part of the context of a society, after the Second Vatican Council and May of 1968, where it had become “forbidden to forbid.” The Church was not immune to these cultural changes: The bishops preferred to “accompany” rather than to sanction. A “Church of Communion” was preferred to the authoritarian model of pre-Vatican II.

And even when there were sanctions, the secrecy in the Church had the perverse effect of diminishing their scope and making some of these sanctions fall into oblivion, as in the case of Thomas and Marie-Dominique Philippe. It was only in 2019 that we learned that the founder of the St. John community had himself been sanctioned in 1957, following the trial of his brother.

I know that to write the book you interviewed both survivors and experts on the field. Did you come to a conclusion about the common elements of these people who were inspired and who inspired others to do much good in the name of God, had secretive, criminal personalities?

All these founders are charismatic personalities, often emotional and captivating for this affectivity, endowed with a great talent for preaching, and with a high spiritual ideal suitable to reach the aspirations of seekers of meaning.

They also have in common the fact that they have maintained, under an air of humility, a cult of personality, and that they have reserved for themselves a special rhythm and a privileged treatment in their community (separate meals, different schedules). They had a complicated relationship with authority: Some left a first community to found their own in which they were the only masters on board; they chose dioceses where the bishop was favorable to them and changed dioceses to find new support.

I wondered if they were perverse from the beginning or if they drifted, won over by spiritual pride in the success of their community. There are psychological and spiritual reasons for this. However, I can’t draw a typical profile.

The experts, moreover, do not agree among themselves. Nevertheless, we can list some aspects of these two-faced personalities … some, rare, meet the characteristics of the true “pervert”, who will build a system in which he will be able to enjoy the exploitation and destruction of the other; others, the most numerous, present a strong narcissistic flaw and, in an uncontrolled context, will develop traits of perversion and will use others to their ends (intellectually, spiritually, financially, sexually), without necessarily being aware of it.

Will the book be translated into English?

I hope so, and my publisher is working on it, because, though I have studied the French context in my book, this phenomenon of charismatic founders of communities who have abused can be found in many other countries; it is enough to mention the Mexican Marcial Maciel (Legionaries of Christ), the Germans Joseph Kentenich (Schönstatt movement) and Werenfried von Stratten (Aid to the Church in Need), the Peruvian Luis Fernando Figari (Sodalicio), the Italian Gino Burresi, the founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

In 2017, Cardinal [João] Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, acknowledged in an interview with Settimananews that the Vatican is “closely following” today 70 new religious families, some of which present “serious personality problems in the founders and phenomena of control, strong psychological conditioning of the members.”

He added that some of these founders have turned out to be “real abusers of consciences.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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