ROME – Following revelations that Jean Vanier, famous for his work with those who have intellectual disabilities, had sexually abused six women, a woman who works in the field and appreciated Vanier’s contributions has said she is shocked, and that the organization he founded needs support.
“We’re all reeling, we’re all reeling in disbelief. I think that may people will feel confused because his actions contradict his teaching and writing,” said Cristina Gangemi told Crux.
Co-director of The Kairos Forum and an expert in pastoral care for people with intellectual disabilities, Gangemi in the past has partnered with the Vatican Council for the New Evangelization in organizing and hosting conferences on catechesis for people with disabilities.
When Vanier died May 7, 2019, at age 90, Gangemi was among those who praised him as “a modern-day prophet” due to his contributions to disability theology and the dignified way he treated individuals with disabilities.
In light of these revelations, Gangemi said Vanier must now be seen as “an opportunity to see through the lens of Jean the human with an experience of falling and engaging in practices that hurt others. That puts his teaching into paradox, so that’s going to take a long time to think about and reflect on.”
Born in 1928 in Geneva to Canadian parents, Vanier eventually abandoned his academic endeavors and, after befriending a French priest, became aware of people suffering from disabilities. In response, he invited a couple of other friends to come live with him and a handful of disabled persons in Trosly-Breuil, France, launching what became the L’Arche movement.
In 1971, Vanier co-founded the Faith and Light movement, focused on people with learning disabilities. L’Arche has spread to more than 37 countries, and Faith and Light to roughly 80.
After Vanier’s death in 2019, while returning from a visit to Bulgaria and Macedonia, Pope Francis called Vanier “a man who knew how to read the Christian efficiency of the mystery of death, the cross, of sickness, the mystery of those who are disrespected and discarded by the world.”
“He didn’t just work for the least of us, but also for those who, before being born, there is the possibility of condemning them to death,” he said, calling Vanier “a great witness.”
However, on Feb. 22 this year L’Arche International issued a statement announcing that after receiving credible complaints that Vanier had sexually abused several women, it conducted and independent, internal investigation that found Vanier to have engaged in coercive sexual relationships with six women from 1970 to 2005.
Commissioned by L’Arche in 2019, the inquiry was carried out by the independent, U.K.-based GCPS Consulting group, finding that Vanier had sexual relations with six adult women who were seeking his spiritual counsel. None of them were disabled.
The statement said Vanier’s behavior was found to be similar to the deviant practices of Father Thomas Philippe, who Vanier had seen as a spiritual father. Philippe underwent a canonical trial and was condemned by the Vatican in 1956 for committing several acts of sexual abuse against women. He was subsequently barred from ministry and offering spiritual direction.
Gangemi voiced her sympathy for the L’Arche community in light of the revelations, but said the most important thing in light of these revelations “is to acknowledge the pain and the woundedness and the suffering that has been undergone by the women who were used in Jean’s journey.”
“Being involved in this, whatever it is that went on in the realm of religious experience, means that their pain isn’t just physical, but it’s spiritual as well,” she said, noting that the women have had to carry the burden of their abuse “in a world that idealized Jean and that could not have been easy.”
Vanier’s actions, she said, “contradicts, as L’Arche has helped us to know,” the values he promoted in his work and writings.
She pointed to a Feb. 25 letter written by the Leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, who said Vanier’s misconduct is the opposite of “the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for.”
Gangemi stressed the importance of the word “otherwise,” in the sentence, saying it implies a recognition that while Vanier’s manipulative behavior was “abominable,” and while he chose to do it for whatever reason, “He didn’t stand only for that.”
“All humans have the capacity for evil, for sin, to fall. All of us. What he did was deviant. What he wrote is what he otherwise stood for,” she said, but stressed that it is still too early to evaluate this.
“I believe that Catholic theologians in the field of disability, have to now look at this very issue. It is something we’re going to have to think about, but it will have to be done,” she said, adding that because of their knowledge of magisterial teaching, the concept of mysticism and the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, “we have a responsibility…to return L’Arche’s witness to love.”
It is out of love, she said, that theologians must revisit the theology to determine “what Jean ‘otherwise’ stood for in a way that actually has had the capacity to form the goodness that is the example L’Arche gives the world.”
At the same time, Gangemi said “we’ll have to be ready to acknowledge the fullness of the report, to provide support with regard to pastoral care and creative methods for helping people to tell their stories.”
Similarly, Father Daniel Hess, a priest from Cincinnati working on a doctoral thesis exploring the reception of the Eucharist by people with disabilities and who has been inspired by Vanier’s writings, said the news of Vanier’s abuse is both “gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.”
“I’m saddened, for the women he manipulated and hurt, and for his own spiritual wellbeing. I’ll be praying for the victims, and for him,” Hess said.
In terms of his own work, Hess said praised L’Arche and said that Vanier will still be an influence in his writing, but he also voiced disappointment that he will not be able to use Vanier as much as he had intended.
“I can’t cite Vanier without his comments on human dignity being a little tainted,” he said. “The principles remain true. He says many true things; but the credibility of his voice is lessened – which is very sad.”
The priest said both Vanier and L’Arche offered an “enfleshment” of the loftiest of ideals in terms of how to live in communion with other people, regardless of their mental or physical status.
“Now we have to face the messy reality of sin and evil in the legacy of a man who has been held up for so long as an ideal,” Hess said, adding that “He was, instead, a man.”
“We are left to reflect upon human frailty – not only physical frailty, but moral and spiritual frailty,” he said, noting that every person is wounded and in need of mercy, but they are also all capable of choosing good.
At his best, Vanier “helped shine light not only on how God bring the ‘least ones’ into his embrace of love, but especially how the ‘little ones’ teach us about our own humanity, dependence, and what it means to truly be children of God,” he said.
Hess voiced his belief that with time, Vanier’s admirers will be able to look at his life and works and still recognize “what is life-giving and good,” while also “acknowledging the hurt he also caused and imperfections of Jean as a man.”
Reflecting on the situation, Gangemi said she believes the world was captivated by the idea of wanting to live with disabled people, and that this captivation soon became “an idealized Christian example of togetherness.”
“There’s nothing abnormal or extraordinary about wanting to live with people no matter what their abilities are, if love is real,” she said, voicing her believe that L’Arche, in launching the investigation into Vanier and sharing the findings, have been an example of this love.
“The greatest example of the love of the people who live together, in the communities in which they live, is that they have been honest enough to bring about this investigation,” she said, adding that “they’ve put the person first,” and this “says so much about what l’Arche has become independent of Jean, because L’Arche isn’t Jean Vanier, and Jean Vanier isn’t L’Arche.”
Calling L’Arche “a model” and “a gift to the world,” Gangemi said if the organization flounders as a result of revelations about Vanier, “we’d lose it at our peril.”
Instead, she urged the international community support L’Arche as it grapples with Vanier’s devious deeds.
“L’Arche is in pain now, it’s bereft,” she said. “They were recently bereft because of his death, and now they’ll have a knock to their identity as core members of L’Arche,and within that, always is the identity of the founder. So it’s a double bereavement. And that needs to be held and accompanied and healed.”
Voicing her belief that disability theology is among the most exciting emerging fields of theological discipline, Gangemi said “it’s done what Jesus did: Stopped excluding people from theological debate, it’s stopped overlooking people with disabilities in theological debate, and it began to identify and assure their place of belonging.”
What Vanier did, she said, is the opposite of what Christ did, “because it causes pain for another person, and that is contradictory to the perspective of any disability theologian.”
“Our theology is about the recognition of dignity and equality. There’s no equality when someone’s vulnerability is abused,” she said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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.