Mary McAleese ‘shocked’ at L’Arche abuse revelations

Former president offers praise and support for victims of charity’s founder Jean Vanier

Mary McAleese: in a letter to The Irish Times, the former president, Prof David Ford and poet Micheal O’Siadhail praised the courage of the women who came forward. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

Mary McAleese: in a letter to The Irish Times, the former president, Prof David Ford and poet Micheal O’Siadhail praised the courage of the women who came forward. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

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Former president Mary McAleese and two leading intellectuals have expressed utter dismay and disappointment at the revelations that the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, sexually abused several adult women.

However, the three, including David Ford, retired regius professor of divinity at Cambridge University, and poet Micheal O’Siadhail, insist that it should not interfere with the good work being done by L’Arche and by the Faith and Light association, also founded by Vanier.

It came “as a terrible shock to the many people around the world who revered Jean Vanier and who continue to support the movements he founded”, said the three, in a letter to The Irish Times and the British-based Catholic magazine the Tablet.

“We condemn this abuse unreservedly,” they said. They expressed support for the women who came forward, “and admiration for their courage”.

“We deeply regret the suffering they have undergone.”

But, they said, “L’Arche and Faith and Light are more than Jean Vanier.” Vanier’s abuse “betrays and affects all who support these movements. We strongly believe in their worth, and will continue to offer our full support to their members,” they said.

They praised L’Arche International for commissioning the independent enquiry which led to the revelations, and were “thankful that those with learning disabilities were not among the abused”.

All who were friends of the L’Arche and Faith and Light movements would “need to take time to grieve and to reflect”. Both demonstrated “the key role played by those with learning disabilities in transforming human relationships. We continue to celebrate and support this unique gift to the world,” they concluded.

Ms McAleese, Prof Ford and Mr O’Siadhail greatly admired Vanier and his work with the intellectually disabled.

Personal inspiration

In a 2014 article for the Tablet magazine, Ms McAleese chose Vanier as one person from the previous 175 years whose life had been a personal inspiration to her. It was part of a series marking the magazine’s 175th anniversary.

She recalled meeting him in Ireland years previously at a Faith and Light meeting and how “ his radiance in the company of so many men, women and children with intellectual disabilities left an indelible imprint on me”.

Jean Vanier died last May aged 90. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty
Jean Vanier died last May aged 90. File photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty

Prof Ford knew Vanier for many years. On a visit to Cambridge in 1992 Vanier suggested setting up a branch of L’Arche there which Prof Ford’s wife Deborah and others would do. On Vanier’s death last May Prof Ford commented: “What a person!” Vanier had “given us what is probably the most important single insight for the 21st century”. It was “a vision where the weakest and the most excluded change us”, he said.

Concluding that tribute, Prof Ford quoted from Mr O’Siadhail’s 2018 poetry collection Five Quintets, in which Vanier is portrayed in conversation with Philosopher Hannah Arendt, Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pope St John XXIII and Muslim theologian Said Nursi.

‘Vision of hope’

He also recalled Vanier’s endorsement of the collection as “a vision of hope, an understanding about the evolution of our society in words of grace. Micheal leads us onto a road of peace.”

Vanier had also commented on the poet’s 2015 collection One Crimson Thread, about Mr O’Siadhail’s late wife, Bríd, who died with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. Vanier wrote “I read slowly, carefully and with deep emotion One Crimson Thread. It is a beautiful, beautiful but terribly sad poem of love.”

In the past Mr O’Siadhail has expressed gratitude for Jean Vanier’s role in shaping his imagination and leading him to a vocation as poet, to carry out “a ministry of meaning which is both public and personal”.

A report to be published on Tuesday has found L’Arche founder Jean Vanier was implicated in the sexual abuse of women.
Jean Vanier’s abuse “betrays and affects all who support these movements [that he founded]. We strongly believe in their worth, and will continue to offer our full support to their members.”