McAleese threatens to leave Catholic Church if Vanier story not explained

Church must say how it commended ‘a man whose predatory proclivities it was aware of’

Former president Mary McAleese has written to Pope Francis saying she will leave the Catholic Church "if it transpires that the Holy See failed to act to protect members of the L'Arche Community".

She said people should have been alerted to "the known predatory activities" of the community's founder Jean Vanier and his mentor, Dominican priest Fr Thomas 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,” Mrs McAleese said in the letter.

Vanier founded L'Arche International in 1964 to assist people with intellectual disabilities. It caters for 10,000 people in 39 countries and has four communities in Ireland at Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Kilkenny, where up to 60 people are cared for and around 100 others are provided day services.


L’ Arche International announced on February 22nd that an inquiry it commissioned last June into allegations of sex abuse by Vanier had “received credible and consistent testimonies from six . . . women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005”. Vanier died last May.


Fr Philippe, who died in 1993, was found by a Catholic Church investigation in 2015 to have sexually abused 14 women, many of them associated with the L’Arche Community, in incidents dating back to the 1970s. It is understood that no people with disabilities were abused by him.

In 1956, Fr Philippe's was removed from ministry by the Vatican because of his abuse of women. Last month's L'Arche also report found that by 1956 "there was no longer any doubt that Jean Vanier was informed of the reasons for the condemnation" of Fr Philippe.

It found too that, against the advice of the church, between 1952 and 1964 Fr Philippe and Vanier maintained a deep bond and that Vanier “shared sexual practices similar to those of Father Thomas Philippe with several women, none of whom seem to have declared themselves as victims”.

In her letter to Pope Francis, Mrs McAleese said “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”.

She said “Vanier was consistently lauded by the Church at the highest level without the remotest suggestion that there was anything worrying in his character”.

‘Powerful cult’

She asked “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?”

"I am one of those who regarded Vanier as inspirational for decades," she said. "Hearing last week the awful story of his sexually and spiritually abusive conduct was devastating. Even worse was learning that the Holy See had been aware since the 1950s of his malevolent proclivities and those of his colleague Pere Thomas Phillippe. "

Mrs McAleese said she was confident that the great work done by L’Arche would allow it recover but that she was “not so sure about whether trust in the Holy See will recover so easily”.

“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,” she said.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times