Jean Vanier and Abuse: Is His Work Discredited?

Jean VanierJean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, beloved author, speaker, teacher, and mentor to thousands, winner of the Templeton prize—sexually abused multiple women over the course of many decades, according to an internal investigation. Until this past week, Vanier’s legacy seemed to be a simple testimony to the power of love. He lived among people with intellectual disabilities, and 154 communities developed across the world under his leadership. L’Arche communities stood as signs of what could be, signs that living out an ethos of love, of giving and receiving between typical people and people with intellectual disabilities, was possible.

My First Response

My first response to this news was to think about Vanier, and about people like me who have been shaped and formed by his thoughts. (I’ve written before about the influence Jean Vanier has had upon me as a writer, a thinker, and as the mother of a child with Down syndrome.)

But my first response should have been to think about these women, to acknowledge the depth of their pain, to cry out against the injustices they suffered, to pray for their healing. The suffering, pain, and emotional and spiritual turmoil and trauma these women endured under Vanier’s spiritual care now sit in the center of this legacy of love.

Vanier’s legacy has been part of my work. His words comprise the epigraph for White Picket Fences. His words of endorsement sit on the back cover of A Good and Perfect Gift. On Saturday morning, just moments before I first read about these allegations, I was teaching a group of women and men in Richmond, Virginia and wrote his name on a whiteboard as one of three authors to pursue on the topic of human dignity and belovedness.   

I don’t expect men like Vanier to be perfect. But I expect him—and others who preach and write and teach about community, and honoring our vulnerable humanity, and following in the way of Jesus—I expect him to live with integrity. A pattern of abuse over the course of many decades is not a mistake. It is sin. It separates us from the love of God. It is sin, sin with teeth that bite and wound.

Do Actions Discredit Words and Work?

Do Vanier’s actions discredit his words? Vanier wrote words like:

[People with disabilities] are crying for what matters most: love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love”
(from
Living Gently in a Violent World)

and

We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts…”
(from Becoming Human)

Do we now reject these words?

Do Vanier’s actions diminish the very real work of love that has flourished in L’Arche communities across the globe?

Thomas Jefferson and Jean Vanier

On Saturday, after I heard this news about Vanier, I sat in the dome room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. This building, like the University, was designed by Thomas Jefferson—founding father, writer of the declaration of independence, owner of hundreds of enslaved people, including his own children.

I was there to hear Dr. John Perkins speak. John Perkins is a legend of the Civil Rights movement. He was beaten within an inch of his life by police in Mississippi and responded to the abuse and violence with an ethic of love and forgiveness that eventually became the Christian Community Development Association, an organization that has prompted Christians across the nation to work towards racial reconciliation through redistribution of resources and relocation of black and white people into community with one another. 

Perkins sat on stage in the dome room, and he began by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” Perkins was gracious and gentle towards Jefferson when he said, “I believe he believed those words. He just didn’t know how to live them.” 

Jefferson’s words, his ideals, his hopes and dreams for this country, don’t need to be dismissed just because he didn’t live them out. And holding on to those poetic and prophetic words does not require us to whitewash Jefferson’s own lived legacy of injustice. 

My Hope for Jean Vanier’s Words and Ideals

I’m not ready to say the same about Jean Vanier, but I suppose that is my hope—that his words and ideals prove to be more enduring, and far more true, than his abuse of power and position. I hope and pray that the flourishing lives within L’Arche communities continue to bear witness to what Vanier’s abuse of power does not: that all human beings are vulnerable and broken, beautiful and gifted. That all human beings are worthy of the dignity and protection of love. 

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Thank you, Amy Julia! Well said. I found myself asking these same questions when the news broke. It’s unsettling when someone like Vanier upends his own legacy and disappoints us utterly–when a man whose words shaped my understanding does something violent and out of line not only with my own beliefs, but with the very essence of what he taught and seemed to himself believe. My first thought was also for myself, when it should have been for the women he victimized. I see how backwards that is. And human. And yes, “I suppose that is my hope—that his words and ideals prove to be more enduring, and far more true, than his abuse of power and position. I hope and pray that the flourishing lives within L’Arche communities continue to bear witness to what Vanier’s abuse of power does not: that all human beings are vulnerable and broken, beautiful and gifted. That all human beings are worthy of the dignity and protection of love.”

    1. Amy Julia Becker
      Amy Julia Becker

      Sara–yes, exactly. It’s devastating news no matter what, but the hypocrisy is what makes it confusing and even more insidious I think. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Avatar
    DDF

    Thank you for your piece about John Paul Vanier. I read your book and remember the epigraph with his words. It was a good choice. Vanier’s deep love & concern for the disabled and disadvantaged had a big influence on my life and ministry. I feel horrible for these women, who endured abuse at the hands of a caring, talented, but very broken man. I am so sorry. … I direct a nonprofit that cares for pastors — counseling, mentoring, coaching. Ministry is built on trust, which takes a looong time to build. It sobers me deeply to realize you can lose, almost instantly, what you have taken a lifetime to build. May God have mercy.

    1. Amy Julia Becker
      Amy Julia Becker

      I do think in this case because Vanier’s actions were sustained for such a long period of time, and with a number of women, it discredits him more and in a different way than if a different offense had come to light. All the more reason for your work–to provide the support for the leaders so that they do not abuse their own positions. Thank you.

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