Jean Vanier

Yesterday, I read the revelations concerning an internal report by L’Arche, an organization renowned for its work in changing the way society takes care of those with developmental and cognitive challenges. Its founder, Jean Vanier, has been accused by several women who worked with him of sexual assault. I was gutted to read this, as are many people around the world, I suspect. Let me be upfront, because I realize not everyone is going to follow the link I’ve posted (and sometimes I blog thinking that this will automatically be the case): these were women of faith who were working dedicatedly with his organization and/or directly with him, whom he coerced and pressured, sometimes over years, breaking so many personal and professional boundaries in the process, doing so much to hurt people while he was helping others.

Vanier, who passed away last year, was one of those people who, while I did not explicitly follow, I held in esteem. Ever since first learning about his work in my late 20s, his commitment to humanizing those who do not have a voice — which included the homeless, among other sectors of society — I’ve looked up to him as a high water mark of how to be a decent human being capable of walking the talk. And this makes the stories coming out all the more sickening, because of the extent of his abuse of power, how much harm he has done to his victims. 

So, what do we do?

I’m not on social media much but I can already imagine people dismissing everything to do with L’Arche, the organization. And while it would be healthy to see how the internal investigation evolved (in particular how quickly it responded to complaints), I am cognizant that the news is due to L’Arche’s internal investigation and not as a result (from what I can see) of an external journalistic expos√©.

I want to continue to support the work of L’Arche in spirit, even if Vanier’s actions in private were so intoxicated and self-absorbed — in particular, for me, the accounts in which he justifies his actions to his victims as being in the spirit of God. While it appears that none of the people he cared for — the most vulnerable in society — were targeted, I am holding my breath on this last part. But there are already victims, women who trusted and believed in his work, in him, and who are scarred by their experience, and whose relationship with their religion I can only imagine must have exacted a great toll as well.

A question that is particularly relevant these days: is it possible to support the continuation of someone’s work despite their horrid private actions? Yes, I think it is, and I don’t think one requires a lawyer to parse out that logic, however I think in this particular instance L’Arche will need to gain the trust of the public, and to define themselves beyond (probably by expunging) Vanier’s image.

Incidentally, I’ve been reading Becoming Ethical, by Alan Jenkins, which provides ways for therapists and social workers to work with men who abuse. I appreciate Jenkins’ philosophy, part of what is called the invitational model, which is not to lock those who have abused into a permanent status of abuser, but allowing them an opportunity to represent themselves and find their own path through the pain they may have caused (as well as deep reflection on their own internal logic). I mention this because I deeply wish there had been a last act in Vanier’s career where he was able to recognize the damage he had done and at least had begun the work of transforming himself ethically.

I am so fucking angry at the man. And terribly saddened with yet another public figure – someone synonymous with raising the quality of the lives of others — has unveiled himself to be culpable of something so avoidable and destructive.

[For those who are curious, I’ve revised this piece many times. Why? The answer may be its own blog entry, but I feel I didn’t give as much space to the victims in the original post.]

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