“Exploited position and authority”

For decades, Canadian Jean Vanier helped people and did endless work for acceptance of the disabled. But after his death, a dark shadow now falls on the founder of Ark Communities.

Jean Vanier, founder of Christian Ark Communities for people with and without intellectual disabilities who died in 2019, allegedly had "manipulative sexual relationships" for decades. This is according to extensive internal investigations, which the community published over the weekend in several languages. Between 1970 and 2005, Vanier, a Canadian who is not a priest, allegedly took advantage of spiritual guidance for six women who were hoping for spiritual help from him.

"Consensual" relations

Vanier himself, shortly before his death, described the relationships with the adult and non-disabled women as "consensual". The women, from different countries and life situations, on the other hand, said they were vulnerable at the time and that Vanier "took advantage of his position and authority". The Ark community views the concurring allegations as credible.

Vanier's behavior, according to the report, mirrors sexual coercion of women, such as that of his spiritual mentor, religious priest Thomas Philippe, who died in 1993. Vanier had covered up Philippe's deeds for many years, which he vehemently denied until the very end.

Ark community concerned

The Arche community in Germany and Austria was shocked and concerned by the results of the investigation. Their leader, Claus Michel, stressed that they take the protection of members from spiritual and sexual abuse very seriously. The Ark stands "by the guiding principle of recognizing the unique value of each person". They said an independent evaluation of the prevention guidelines should be completed this summer. There was no evidence so far that Philippe or Vanier had "committed comparable acts also against people with disabilities".

A charismatic Catholic, Vanier was born in Geneva in 1928. In 1964, the philosophy lecturer and former naval officer founded the first of what are now more than 150 Ark communities in a village north of Paris, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together. In 2015, Vanier received the Templeton Prize for services to humanity and, at the end of 2016, an honor from the French Legion of Honor.

Pierre Jacquand, the Ark leader in France, spoke of the "feeling of having been betrayed" and of being heartbroken. "Jean Vanier was my friend," the newspaper "La Croix" (Saturday) quotes him; "he did as much good to me as to thousands of others." And yet he had "preferred to lie to us". The person in charge of Arche International, Stephan Posner, said: "He hid a whole segment of his life from us."

French bishops' conference: 'How could he reconcile this'?"

The president of the French Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, also expressed horror at the accusations against Vanier. "How could he play along with the ghastly game of Father Thomas Philippe, become an accomplice and maintain this crazy presumption of a higher mystical state?", reads a statement from de Moulins-Beaufort. Vanier had done an infinite amount for the life and acceptance of disabled people; "how could he reconcile all this in his life?"

The president of the French Conference of Superiors of Religious Orders (Corref), Sister Veronique Margron, stressed that Ark communities have not depended on their founding figure for a long time. Still, he said, it will take time to understand how a "personality as radiant" as Vanier "could conceal such a dark countenance". Meanwhile, the Dominican religious province in France decided over the weekend to set up two new commissions of inquiry into Father Thomas Philippe (1905-1993), Vanier's spiritual mentor, with whom he shared many views and apparently also practices.

Worldwide, the community says there are currently 154 arks in 38 countries around the world with about 10.000 members, disabled people and their caregivers. There are three arks in Germany, in Tecklenburg (North Westphalia), Ravensburg (Upper Swabia) and Landsberg am Lech (Southwest Bavaria). The Ark originated in the Catholic milieu, but now sees itself as interdenominational and partly interreligious.

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