On February 22, 2020 L’Arche International released a summary of findings of an independent investigation that identified that Jean Vanier, venerated founder and spiritual leader of L’Arche, had in all probability engaged in non-consensual and coercive sexual activity with six women. In short, he was a serial sexual abuser.
I live and work in the disability and theology community and to say that the people in my world are struggling to process this information is an understatement. Overnight their hero fell from his lofty perch and what he is, and how he will be remembered, remains undecided.
My relationship with Vanier has always been a lot more nuanced and complicated that that of my peers. As a result my views about Vanier and his work have often been at odds with my broader community. I have never seen the man as a saint, and as the mother of a child with significant challenges I often struggled with the manner in which he discussed people with disabilities. I often took exception to his use of stigmatizing language and ideas about people with intellectual disabilities, particularly as a tool to explore his own, and our collective, humanity and faith. In my view, Vanier often fell victim to essentializing and objectifying people with disabilities, and in doing so he paradoxically dehumanized people in order to explore his own humanity.
The fallout of the news has been significant. Many are now talking about how to share this news about their hero and beloved friend with people with disabilities. What worries me is that at the moment the conversation continues to be about how to reconcile a venerated saint amid a sexual abuse scandal. While that is an important conversation since our friends with IDs will also be struggling to integrate this news alongside their memories of a beloved friend, I am worried that the more pressing conversation about sexual abuse, power, voice, and disability will be eclipsed by the grief many are feeling about their hero’s fall from grace.
The Summary Report released by L’Arche International identified that Vanier “on a balance of probabilities” (p. 4) sexually abused six women. None of these women lived with intellectual disabilities. However the report was also clear that the allegations of abuse were investigated on behalf of women who had voluntarily come forward to voice their stories. “This number does not presume that there were not other cases, but takes into account spontaneously received testimony” (p. 5). The summary of findings does not identify that a more fulsome review of Vanier’s relationships with women (or men), including those with IDs, was undertaken. That worries me.
People with intellectual disabilities often struggle to have their stories heard. Indeed many cannot tell their stories at all. As is often the case for vulnerable people, their stories are colonized and subsequently told by people with greater power, often to serve the needs of the privileged. In my opinion Vanier did this in his work exploring faith and humanity. However, this also means that people with IDs may not have the opportunity, or ability, to tell a story of abuse. Conversations about sexual abuse with people who live with IDs demand skillful and sensitive questioning at the hands of highly trained professionals. The summary of findings released by L’Arche does not share whether these conversations have happened with their most vulnerable population.
Conversations about abuse are further complicated by the fact people with disabilities, including people with IDs, are generally portrayed as childlike, innocent, and correspondingly, asexual. As a result, their sexuality and ability to engage in broadly defined sexual behaviours and practices often remains poorly discussed and explored. While many who live with IDs will never have the ability to consent to a sexual relationship, some are able to consent to certain forms of affection within specific boundaries, such as kissing, cuddling, and hand-holding, with a self-identified partner. Group homes, rather than discussing such issues in a healthy manner, often view sexuality among people with IDs as taboo. This means that often all conversations about sex, including conversations of abuse, are silenced by people in positions of power.
I am heartbroken that six women have suffered. I am grateful for their courage in allowing their stories to be shared. But I worry that the collective response, at least the one I have witnessed thus far, has continued to be about how all of us, people who enjoy positions of power and privilege, will cope with the loss of a beloved hero and role model. We must get beyond our own sense of loss to remember that people who were vulnerable were abused by a man who intentionally chose to live amid our most vulnerable citizens. This man used their stories for his own philosophical and theological edification rather than creating space for his friends with IDs to tell their own stories. I am not grief-stricken, I am angry, alarmed, and worried. And while I have no desire for this tragedy to become a witch hunt, it is imperative that L’Arche fully and transparently explore the nature of Vanier’s relationships with all members of his community including those with disabilities, and share the results. This tragedy must be first and foremost about protecting victims and vulnerable people, not about processing our feelings about the loss of a saint.