This past semester I taught a course entitled “The Theology of Disability” at McGill University in Montreal. It was an unusual semester to be teaching, given the disruptions caused by COVID-19. As of March 16, all academic activities were suspended for two weeks and, following this pause, classes shifted to an online format for the rest of the term.
Earlier in the semester, however, the class experienced a disruption that was arguably more significant in terms of our subject matter. That disruption came on February 22 in the form of a report published by L’Arche International: a report which found that Jean Vanier had engaged in abusive and coercive sexual relationships with several women over a 35-year period. The report outlined the significant distress and harm Vanier’s abusive actions had caused at least five women.
When you read on the topics of theology and disability, it is impossible to avoid Jean Vanier’s name. His writings about friendship and vulnerability are frequently quoted, his founding of L’Arche is invariably mentioned and his unique personality is often described. In the week immediately prior to the publication of the L’Arche report, I had assigned my students two readings related to Jean Vanier. The first was from Vanier’s book Becoming Human and the second explored the work of Vanier in relation to peace movements. At one moment my students were thinking about Vanier’s contribution to our understanding of beautiful relationships, and the next moment they were reading about his sexual abuse of women.
Given this terrible juxtaposition, we took some time in class to think about what these revelations meant for our explorations of theology and disability. One of the most important questions we formulated was around the risks that arise when we place too much emphasis on mutual vulnerability and friendship. These are themes I traced in a column in Christian Courier in 2019, written in the wake of Vanier’s death. I concluded that column with this: “The most significant thing about us is something we all have in common – that we are lonely and broken, and that in relationships of trust and love we begin to discover our true selves.”
This statement is true, of course. But there is a profound risk if we accent mutual vulnerability and friendship without consideration for the dynamics of power. Yes, any two persons in a relationship are vulnerable in some way. Each of us is characterized by weakness and brokenness, even if we find it difficult to acknowledge this about ourselves. But it is also true that one person in a relationship may hold significant power over the other on the basis of social status, economic status, or gender (to name just a few possible bases of such power).
It is not surprising to read that these dynamics were at play in Vanier’s abusive relationships with women. The L’Arche report states: “All alleged victims [of Vanier] described their own vulnerability at the time of the events, sometimes coming from difficult family backgrounds or looking for a father figure, or looking for admiration and recognition and/or seeking spiritual guidance. They also describe significant barriers to raising these issues, given the charismatic personality of Jean Vanier and his predominant position within L’Arche.”
In other words, these were not relationships between two persons of equal status and vulnerability. They were relationships in which one person held significant power in relation to the other – and Jean Vanier abused that power. These revelations are only made more devastating when we realize Vanier used spiritual practices and the faith of these women to insinuate himself abusively in their lives.
A further difficult question arises here. If L’Arche was founded on Vanier’s approach to friendship and mutual vulnerability, are its 153 communities sufficiently aware of the dynamics of power? Is L’Arche structured in ways that mitigate the power of assistants who live alongside those with intellectual and developmental disabilities? Otherwise expressed: Has the emphasis on mutual vulnerability and friendship prevented the establishment of protocols that protect the most vulnerable? Since I am not personally familiar with L’Arche, these are questions I cannot answer.
However, actions taken by the organization over recent months suggest they have understood these dynamics. When L’Arche received a second credible complaint against Vanier in 2019 (after investigating an earlier complaint in 2016), the organization decided to launch an independent inquiry. As Madeline Burghart put it, writing in the Globe and Mail: “Despite the potential for damage to its reputation, L’Arche International initiated the investigation and hired a reputable consulting firm with expertise in the prevention of sexual abuse to carry it out.” When the organization could have tried to control the investigation and the narrative, and play down its own potential institutional failures, it chose a reputable third party to investigate.
As a result, at least some part of the truth has seen the light of day. More, the dynamics of vulnerability and power have been clearly articulated. In speaking of various women who worked with Vanier, the report finds: “While some spoke positively, others described abusive behaviour, whereby they had placed their trust in Vanier and he had used his power over them to take advantage of them through different kinds of sexual behaviours.” L’Arche is to be commended for its openness in exposing Vanier’s actions and abusive behaviour; and, for creating a forum for ongoing reporting of possible abuse to a third-party task force.
This is not to say that full assurance has been achieved. For example, the initial report states: “The inquiry team investigated a number of allegations of sexual assault all from women who were adult and not people with disabilities.” Unfortunately, this is an argument from silence, and we should be wary of the implied conclusion that no one with an intellectual or developmental disability was abused. The fact that no person with a disability voiced a complaint simply reminds us that the most vulnerable often have no voice to accuse or name those who have done them harm.
Our hope and prayer for L’Arche is that it has achieved or will achieve what Jean Vanier could not – genuine love, protection and friendship in all relationships. Such an achievement would mean that we could turn the words of Jesus on their head and say that the servant will have turned out to be greater than the master.
A final, difficult question arises here, and it is a particularly vexed question in a society that is so quick to #cancel those who transgress its moral boundaries, a society that in many ways wishes to “disappear” those who fail in certain ways. The question is whether we can acknowledge having learned something from Jean Vanier.
Stanley Hauerwas, the well-known American theologian, was a friend of Vanier’s and collaborated with him on several projects. They were the main contributors, for example, to a 2006 book entitled Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness. Hauerwas’ own work on disability is greatly indebted to the life and work of Vanier. In a recent interview he expressed his devastation at the L’Arche report: “[I am] heartbroken by this revelation of [Vanier’s] terrible misconduct and utterly condemn it as an abuse of power.”
In the same interview, Hauerwas picks up the question of whether and how we can continue to learn from Vanier. It is a question he approaches tentatively: “So much of [Jean Vanier’s] life was morally exemplary. That is one of the problems. How can we continue to learn from his witness with his intellectually disabled friends without excusing his predatory sexual behaviour? At this time when we are trying to receive this devastating news, the only advice I have is not to be in a hurry to answer that question… .”
We should create space for very different, individual responses to the revelations about Vanier. Yet Hauerwas offers advice many of us can perhaps heed: That we should simply sit with the terrible juxtaposition of what we have learned from Jean Vanier and what we have learned about him, neither rushing to blot him from our memories, nor returning too quickly to his work and writings. The best response can be to let judgment and grace and doubt and anger and healing do their work, and that can only take time.
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