Why did the Vatican not ask any questions about abuser Jean Vanier?
Founder of disability charity L’Arche abused six women and maintained link to disgraced mentor
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche and Faith & Light charities, died last May. Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Getty Images
Few people in contemporary Catholicism and indeed beyond that denomination had a standing similar to that of Jean Vanier. People frequently referred to him as a living saint and expected that he would be canonised in the near future.
He was frequently compared to Mother Teresa, herself a saint since canonisation in 2016. By coincidence, Pope Francis was on his way home from a visit to Skopje, capital of North Macedonia and where Mother Teresa was born, when he heard of Vanier’s death last May.
He told reporters on the flight back to Rome how he had been kept informed about Vanier’s failing health and had phoned him a week before his death. “He listened to me, but he could barely speak. I wanted to express my gratitude for his witness,” he said, to “those who are despised and discarded”.
Almost annually Vanier was mooted as a Nobel prize winner. Schools across Canada were named after him and, in 2010, so too was as asteroid.
So revelations that this man had been abusing adult women came as a profound shock to very many people. It has been accompanied by deeply felt disappointment and a re-evaluation of his life.
There is also, on the part of L‘Arche and the Faith & Light charities founded by Vanier, a determined effort to separate out the work from the man. No one can doubt that L’Arche in Ireland and internationally does immense work for people who are among the most vulnerable in society.
It would be a tragedy if revelations about Vanier’s dark side were to impact on those least responsible, the people looked after by L’Arche, as well as Faith & Light.
There are, however, questions that need to be answered by church bodies, given the scandal has its origins in the 1950s when Vanier’s spiritual director and mentor Dominican priest Fr Thomas Philippe was removed from public and private ministry by the Vatican for the abuse of women. The priest died in 1993.
The L’Arche report, a summary of which was published at the weekend, found that in 1956 “there was no longer any doubt that Jean Vanier was informed of the reasons for the condemnation” of Fr Philippe.
The report also found that against the advice of the church, between 1952 and 1964, Fr Philippe and Vanier maintained a deep bond. Letters from this period reveal the extent of the priest’s influence on Vanier’s “thinking and behaviour”.
It was in 1964 that Vanier founded L‘Arche. The letters referred to, in the Dominicans’ archive, included what the investigation termed “a series of indicators”, which “lead us to believe that he [Vanier] shared sexual practices similar to those of Father Thomas Philippe with several women, none of whom seem to have declared themselves as victims”.
It said that “in 1963, Jean Vanier helped Father Thomas Philippe to physically install his house in Trosly-Breuil [near Paris] and joined him a few months later. Very quickly, several of the women in the small group followed him to find Thomas Philippe, and they were involved to varying degrees in the founding of L’Arche”.
The women referred to belonged to a group called l’Eau Vive (the Water of Life) founded by Fr Philippe in 1946 as an international “school of wisdom” and which Vanier joined in 1950. Fr Philippe had been banned by the Vatican from any further dealings with it but continued to run it, secretly, through Vanier.
The L’Arche report found that in the early 1960s Fr Philippe “gradually resumed his priestly and apostolic activities, beginning again to confess and to accompany men, then women”, despite being banned by Rome from ministry.
Why did neither the Dominicans nor Rome intervene when it was clear Fr Philippe was back in ministry despite being banned?
Most damning of all the L’Arche report found that “because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices” of Fr Philippe it was possible for the priest “to continue his sexual abuse of women in L’Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities”.
It also “heard allegations that Jean Vanier was aware of other situations of psychological or sexual abuse of L’Arche assistants by another person. Despite Jean Vanier’s denials when questioned by L’Arche International officials, his knowledge of at least some of the facts seems to be proven”.
It prompts the obvious question why, as Vanier’s reputation grew to stratospheric heights, did no one in the Dominicans or the Vatican query his collaboration with Fr Philippe?
Why did no one ask if abuse could be happening, considering Fr Philippe’s known history and Vanier ’s suspected history? And why did neither the Dominicans nor Rome intervene when it was clear Fr Philippe was back in ministry despite being banned?
Fr Philippe’s removal from ministry in 1956 was by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As his and Vanier’s reputation grew, did Pope Benedict, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1982 to 2005, never wonder what might be in their files?
That is not all. Only last November, Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe, another Dominican priest and brother of Fr Philippe, was officially renounced by a movement he founded in France in 1975, the Brothers of Saint John.
That followed a 2013 church inquiry which found that Fr Marie-Dominique, who died in 2006, had sexually abused several women and that, in 1957,he too was sanctioned by Rome for covering up the abuse of women by his brother Fr Thomas Philippe.
Even then in 2013, six years before Vanier died, neither the Dominicans or the Vatican asked any questions.