faiths against child sexual exploitation

When Religious Leaders Fall

What do we do when a highly regarded and much loved spiritual leader falls? Specifically, when they are shown to have used their power and position to sexually, physically or spiritually abuse children and young people, men and women. This is a major issue for faith groups learning to handle allegations of abuse.

This weekend L’Arche, the international organisation for people with learning disabilities, released details of an investigation into their celebrated founder Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier, a Canadian working in France, was a Catholic, but his work has inspired people of many faiths and none around the world, and his writings have influenced many Christians. Often described before he died last year as a living saint, he was widely thought to be a candidate for the Roman Catholic church to formally canonise.

In that light it is a mark of great credit to L’Arche that they released on Saturday a press release and letter to all their members to acknowledge the report they had themselves commissioned, due out this Tuesday.

“[Six] women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Although they had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviours. The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.”

L’Arche communities challenge the stigma placed by society on those with learning disability by creating a place where they can live equally alongside the advantaged and “normal” members of society. Based on his life in L’Arche, Vanier wrote profoundly about community, disability, humanity, identity and marginalisation, and peace, alongside his more focused deeply spiritual writings.

I never met or even heard Jean Vanier, but I know L’Arche well. My son James and his wife worked in the community in Belfast for some three years, and we loved to visit them. I remember my son describing community life, gardening, church visits and holidays with “Stephen” who he particularly accompanied. “Stephen” came over to James’ wedding and “read” from the Bible at the wedding service, proudly holding the book while someone else delivered the words.  He was a real character, well known in L’Arche circles, and James described the twinkle in Vanier’s eye as he greeted “Stephen” when they met at L’Arche events.

There are no suggestions Vanier abused either young people or the learning disabled. However abuse is not primarily about age but power, and he clearly abused that power. It is foundational to any community that power is challenged and levelled, and thus critical for L’Arche’s integrity and indeed continuity that these allegations are addressed. They have done so in a way that shows up the failure of religious groups like the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church to come to terms with, let alone name and challenge abuse in their midst:

“We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based. We recognize the courage and suffering of these women, and of any others who may not have spoken up. We also want to express our gratitude to the women who, by speaking out a few years ago about Father Thomas Philippe, helped others to liberate themselves of a burden of shame and suffering they did not deserve to be carrying. To all of them, we ask forgiveness for these events which took place in the context of L’Arche, some of which were caused by our founder”. (L’Arche International independent inquiry)

Perhaps most importantly for people of faith is how we respond when our heroes, our saints, our mentors, are named as an abuser. For the Church of England this issue lies at the heart of the story I posted here about a few weeks ago. Peter Ball, a Bishop of Lewis and later Gloucester, was regarded as a godly and charismatic person, which both made him hugely attractive as a role model and spiritual leader to many young men as well as senior colleagues in the church. He was able to hide behind that reputation when reports of his abuse became known.

Two very different characters are currently challenging the processes of the church. John Smythe abused young men who he met through his preaching in schools and summer camps for young men from those schools. I have blogged about the allegations here; they are principally physical and spiritual, though its seems they were homoerotic. More recently a series of allegations against evangelical church leader Jonathan Fletcher have been published in the Telegraph, most recently this past Saturday. Fletcher’s abuse was physical and spiritual, and all allegations to date have been on adult men. However both his and Smythe’s cases involve power, principally their ability to advance or block progress as leaders within a circle.

In short, Vanier, Ball, Smythe and Fletcher were people to whom you did not say no. In the words of one survivor of abuse by Ball in Sussex (Chichester Diocese) to researchers Yvonne and David Shemmings: “You don’t say no to God.” And in that statement the heart of the abuse of power in any form in a religious context, sexual, physical or spiritual, is summed up. Religious leaders are people who help us grow in faith. People we trust. People we owe a huge debt of gratitude to. They are people in whose presence our discernment is off guard.

Most problematical is that often the reported godliness, as well as the goodness, is a reality, albeit in part. So often these are people who have done a huge amount of good. In Vanier’s case that is demonstrated in the size of the organisation he founded. L’Arche has 10,000 members in 137 communities in 35 nations. Many similar groups exist, inspired by him. His writings have genuinely helped many. And the good he has done is both real and cannot be undone by what we now know.

How do you handle the reality of a giant who is found to have feet of clay? It is too easy to invalidate all the good done. Or to ignore the evil. It is in this that L’Arche’s response is most helpful. I will close with their words:

For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain. While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”

“… The words of those who have testified bring to light a troubled part of our history, but they give L’Arche the opportunity to move forwards with a better understanding of our history and, ultimately, better equipped to face the challenges of our time.” (L’Arche International independent inquiry)

faiths against child sexual exploitation
A Christian and Muslim collaboration
Annual report 2024 Annual report 2023
Registered charity number: 1188740 (England and Wales)
Top pages
Resources Training