Quoting Jean Vanier, “to be human is to be bonded together, each with our own weaknesses and strengths because we need each other.” Those words appear on a plaque presented by Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport to Vanier seven years ago in Trosly-Breuil, France. Now retired, Bishop Amos led the Quad-City Pacem in Terris Coalition that honored Vanier with its Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. The coalition took the then-unprecedented step of having the bishop present the award in person to the aging humanitarian.
The coalition deeply admired Vanier’s lifelong commitment to “strive to build caring relationships and foster the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities so that they have a sense of belonging to the world in which we all live,” the award so eloquently states.
Those words make our hearts ache as we try to process L’Arche International’s report of credible allegations of sexual abuse against Vanier, who died last year. The allegations pertain to six women without disabilities. While none of the abuse occurred in the U.S., L’Arche USA issued a sorrow-filled statement Feb. 22 that Vanier “has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context, where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.” The report states that the occurrences had “a long-lasting and negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.”
How do we reconcile Vanier’s deviant behavior with his compassionate, inspiring approach to building community among people with and without intellectual disabilities? What led him to prey on women who looked up to him?
First, we need to recognize that Vanier’s fall from the pedestal does not negate the work he began and that continues without him. “Tragic. Breaks my heart. One of my heroes,” Bishop Thomas Zinkula said, reacting to the news. Vanier “did wonderful, great work, but his egregious behavior points to the brokenness of a man whose actions betrayed what he claimed to stand for.”
Vanier’s human failings underscore the unhealthy practice of placing the people on pedestals. A letter Bishop Zinkula wrote on “clericalism” in September 2018 speaks to a sense of privilege that traps laypersons as well as clergy. “The issue here is privilege. Which can lead to a sense of entitlement, superiority and exclusion. Which can lead to a mindset that the rules don’t apply to me. This, in turn, can lead to an abuse of privilege and power ….”
The remedy for that? Bishop Zinkula said, “[W]e need to reclaim the common priesthood of the faithful. As Paul tells us (1 Cor. 12:12-31), together we make up the body of Christ — each with our particular vocation, each necessary for the healthy working of the body. We should not equate distinct roles with differences in worth, dignity or holiness.”
Second, we need to celebrate the good accomplished through L’Arche while acknowledging that no person is perfect. “What was so striking to me about the L’Arche communities in France and Clinton is the extra-ordinary love and respect that are present,” Bishop Emeritus Amos said. “If the whole world would act like they do, it would be wonderful. But, I guess we need to wait for heaven for that to happen. I’m glad we have them as a witness to what could be.”
Third, pray for and support L’Arche, which is a manifestation of God’s desire for each of us to be Christ-like for each other. The women victimized by Vanier need our prayers, also. At the same time, we should pray for God’s mercy for Vanier.
The Quad-City Pacem in Terris Coalition had no idea of Vanier’s dark side when they chose him to receive the peace award. Truly, it belongs to the 153 communities in 38 countries on five continents that carry on the beautiful mission of their flawed founder. A longtime L’Arche supporter says that the community is experiencing an “Agony in the Garden” moment. “The Resurrection will come.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor