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Dispatches from the Breaking Point

Last Saturday morning, I, like many others, gasped as I read Ian Brown’s Globe and Mail article describing how L’Arche founder Jean Vanier had sexually abused six women over a period of several decades and known of abuses committed by his former mentor and spiritual director, Père Thomas Philippe. I had received a heads-up from local L’Arche leaders that “something about Vanier might be coming” (our church has close ties with the L’Arche community in our city), but most seemed to think that it might have to do with what and when Vanier knew about Père Thomas’s abuses. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like what I read in the Globe last weekend.

I am not in the inner circle of L’Arche so I’m not affected as personally as some of my friends in the community. But it’s still a gut punch to learn that someone whose life and witness I deeply admired had been behaving in sexually and spiritually exploitative and manipulative ways over the course of decades. The deception and betrayal run deep and cause great pain. It’s one thing to learn that some mega-church pastor who quite obviously loves the sound of their own voice has abused their power and influence in these ways. But Jean Vanier?! The man seemed to virtually embody all that was gentle, kind, tender, and sacrificial in the world?! Yes, we’re all sinners, but… well, seriously, Jean Vanier?!

At any rate, I’m not alone in struggling with this. I’ve read dozens of reactions to this story over the past week. Some have been helpful, some have not. Most have expressed confusion, shock, and some measure of anger. Alan Jacobs, for example, offered this blistering response in a post that he has since taken down:

The Vanier story has been a kind of breaking point for me. I would like to propose the following response:

Every Christian man in any authority of any kind over any persons—and that includes me, as a teacher—should be assumed to be exploiting that authority to control others, especially women, for sexual gratification or simply in order to satisfy the libido dominandi.

That should be the position we all take going forward. No exceptions. None of us should be trusted, none of us should be believed. You all should watch us like hawks and expect the very worst at every moment. Only by taking such apparently drastic steps do we have a chance of breaking the demonic hold of religious authority invested in men or in institutions controlled by men.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to operate with a rather low anthropology. I have never been one to downplay the pervasiveness of human sin, stupidity, and profound selfishness. I am not one of these people who believe that human beings are basically good and that if we could just figure out how to arrange ourselves socially, politically, and economically our innate virtues would flower forth in all their luminous brilliance. No, I believe that we are all in the words of Moby Dick, “somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” And “all” really does mean all of us.

But when I read Jacobs’ assessment of how to respond to news that even those who seem to be the very best among us go badly astray, I cringed. Surely this is too drastic a “solution.” Surely this is a reactive response borne out of pain and anger. Or, worse, it’s another example of what is rapidly becoming our default online instinct which is to pile on the superlatives in order to demonstrate an acceptable level of outrage to the watching world. Every Christian man in any authority should be assumed to be exploiting that authority to control others, especially women, for sexual gratification? Really? This is the way forward? This is how we absolve ourselves of our sins of association? This is our twenty-first century equivalent of sackcloth and ashes?

That was my instinctual response to Jacobs’ words. My second response was, “Well, wait a minute, perhaps this is exactly how a “Christian man in a position of authority” would be expected to respond. He would seek to protect himself, obviously. He would say, “Well, yes, of course there are bad Christian men out there, even some men who we would never expect badness from, but not me, for heaven’s sake!” He would say things like, “How would I even operate in a context with that kind of a hermeneutic of suspicion? How could anyone function well in their vocation when the default assumptions are that you’re probably lying, that you can’t be trusted, that you’re almost certainly exploiting someone behind the scenes, that your very existence is a problem to be guarded against?”

This past Sunday, a small group of us spent the hour before worship simply talking about how we were feeling about the Jean Vanier story. It was good and important that we took this time. But there were times, certainly, where I felt a little awkward personally. It’s a tricky thing, as a male leader of a spiritual community who nobody would probably ever expect to have dark, subterranean secrets to be talking about the pain caused by revelations that a male leader of a spiritual community who nobody would probably ever expect to have dark, subterranean secrets had a whole shadow side of his life that nobody knew about. If even Jean Vanier can’t be trusted, then how or why should we trust those whose life and public example don’t approach the heights of his?

Still, though, at the end of it all, I still think Jacobs goes too far. Christian communities have always been led by sinners. This is axiomatic. It is embedded in our theological anthropology and richly borne out empirically. But I actually don’t think a community could function if people were encouraged to have as their default assumption that their leaders (at least the male ones) were probably abusers. If communities actually internalized the message that no male leader should be trusted or believed, that they should be “watched like hawks” and expected the “very worst of at every moment,” then the logical next question should be, “Well, why accept them at all?”

To be sure, I imagine some would advocate this. For some, male leadership of any kind is problematic by definition and must be eliminated. I obviously don’t think this is the healthiest way forward. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. M. Janzen #

    The paradox of Christian community. Strength from vulnerability. Trust that comes from admitting failure. Hope that comes from brokenness. We are accepted as we are, even though we are all broken.

    February 28, 2020
    • Indeed. These are hard things to hold together, but I think it is vital that we keep trying.

      February 29, 2020
  2. Paul Johnston #

    It is unfortunate that this story has come forward when it has, as it has. Is it the truth, to some extent I suppose so but in this cultural climate it should be viewed with suspicion. Waiting some 30 years to bring forward accusations, regarding a person now deceased ought not to be the standard by which we judge any actions or any people.

    February 28, 2020
    • I do not presume to speak about the motivations of anyone or to the timing of this report.

      I think it is more unfortunate that Vanier did what he did, that he lied about it for many years, and that real women were hurt in the process.

      February 29, 2020
      • Paul Johnston #

        But aren’t you are willing to presume, Vanier’s guilt based on the hearsay of others.

        February 29, 2020
      • I’m willing to accept the report of an external investigation by a reputable agency (based on what I’ve heard from local L’Arche leaders) that was commissioned by L’Arche itself.

        February 29, 2020
    • Michael #

      Paul, knowing people in L’Arche and the esteem they have for Vanier, I’m quite confident that they did not want Vanier to be a sexual abuser. Nevertheless, their concern for the truth and the dignity of his victims lead them to commission and release this report. Would that all our churches and institutions were equally committed to the truth, instead of using pressure and threats to keep victims silent. If you’re wondering why it takes 30 years to bring forth accusations, it’s precisely because of the climate of suspicion you endorse.

      March 1, 2020
  3. Jimmy the Kid #

    This is a very sad story. I think the quote form your post would be more accurate as follows:

    Every Christian man in any authority of any kind over any persons—and that includes me, as a teacher—should be assumed to be CAPABLE OF exploiting that authority to control others, especially women, for sexual gratification or simply in order to satisfy the libido dominandi.

    I think we as humans are all capable of doing terrible things. (For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Romans 7:15)…. Like Paul, I think we can all echo those sentiments at times.

    February 29, 2020
    • Yes, I think your amendment to the quote is an appropriate one that reflects a sober, thoroughly Christian understanding of human nature. Thanks.

      February 29, 2020
  4. Thanks, Ryan. Like others, I’m still reeling from this story. One caution I have, going forward, is to watch the impulse to make people I admire into saints. Jean Vanier, much as we can still value the truths he taught us, had a dark, hidden stain. This whole episode should fill us with humility and self-awareness, but it must not paralyze.I like Jimmy’s edt above.

    March 1, 2020
    • Yes, humility and self-awareness should be key lessons we take from this story. We should resist the impulse to make people saints, certainly. I suspect we should also resist the temptation to define people purely by their sins, too. Both are so easy to do.

      March 1, 2020
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Forgive the abruptness of my last response, Michael. I read your response, believed it to be an inaccurate reimagining of my words and in anger I tersely replied. I withdraw that comment in spirit, though I am unable to withdraw it physically from this thread.

    I also withdraw the word, “suspicion” and would rather use the less inflammatory term, “skeptical”…

    In any circumstance involving 2 parties, whatever the nature of the relationship, the power arrangement, or the specifics of the disagreement, I believe plausibility as a standard, based on the memories of only one of the parties involved, in some cases memories dating some 50 years ago ought not to be the standard by which we measure innocence or guilt.

    My skepticism is further compounded by the fact that we live in a cultural moment where any questioning of memories or otherwise unsubstantiated claims is deemed as offensive as the accusations themselves. The truth is not being served. Sadly the potential for abuse in this approach to justice is far more reaching and damaging than the incidences of abuse these kinds of efforts are seeking to redress.

    The report, regarding Mr.Vaniers behavior, is a mish mash of innuendo and alleged documents, though none are provided, and “sincere” testimony (as if sincerity were the objective standard) of persons who remain nameless and whose testimony of memories, over 50 years old is surmised to be true by those having been commissioned to find examples of sexual impropriety. The unabridged testimonies themselves are not provided, even in an anonymous form.

    The most absurd contention, one that I think invalidates the objectivity of the investigators themselves is this bizarre summation of their brand of justice, “The inquiry team acknowledges that the fact that Jean Vanier is deceased presents difficulty to any inquiry but does not diminish any of the basic principals that accompany such work, including its impartiality and objectivity and the right of the person who is the subject of a complaint to give a response”.

    Wow! What an irrational and immoral definition of the terms, impartiality, objectivity and ” the rights of a person subject to a complaint”.

    The investigators do outline in greater detail a more serious case of sexual impropriety against Father Thomas Phillipe, not by their own efforts but by simply cutting and pasting Vatican documents. On reading this report, guilt by association, using other investigative sources seems to be the primary accomplishment of this effort.

    Jean Vanier, a single man, seems to have had an appetite for sexual intercourse, many men do. Many single women do also. Did he use his authority inappropriately and exploit vulnerable women for his pleasure, at least some women who I gather consented to have sex with him, later thought so, many others would appear did not.

    In the end it is between God and Jean Vanier, justice is God’s now, I will pray for the soul of a sinner who otherwise did some special things for the advancement of, “the least of his”.

    I will also pray for the women involved. I cannot know their circumstances or their suffering, I can say in all honesty, however hard it would be for them to hear, that when I have suffered at the hands of the coercive behavior of others, I must also acknowledge that my consent made me complicit and I had to bear some responsibility for the outcomes. A hard truth to learn but ultimately a liberating one that has allowed for healing, forgiveness, and strength to say no and avoid other potentially abusive circumstances.

    March 1, 2020
    • I don’t really have substantial disagreements with anything you say here, Paul. Yes, we do “live in a cultural moment where any questioning of memories or otherwise unsubstantiated claims is deemed as offensive as the accusations themselves.” No, the the truth is not always (often) served in our frantic haste to render moral judgments. Yes, things are almost certainly more complicated than the blunt instruments of “abuser” and “victim” language that we default to.

      At the end of it all, though, it seems indisputable to me that, a) Vanier lied about his own behaviour and his knowledge of Father Thomas Phillipe’s behaviour; b) that both men behaved in ways that were sexually exploitative and highly spiritually manipulative.

      In the end, I land where you do:

      it is between God and Jean Vanier, justice is God’s now, I will pray for the soul of a sinner who otherwise did some special things for the advancement of, “the least of his”.

      March 2, 2020
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I will comment later on the most challenging aspects of this thread for me, that being the response of Alan Jacobs and the qualified support his claim has received here. I have struggled to give this story the sympathy it deserves because of them.

    March 1, 2020
  7. Paul Johnston #

    To your question, Ryan I did read the report, I wanted to take some time to clarify my thoughts before responding and life can be busy. 🙂

    March 1, 2020

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