Episode 1: The Second Death of Jean Vanier

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JENNA BARNETT, narrating: This podcast deals with issues of spiritual and sexual violence. Please use care when listening.

JENNA: I’m curious, do you remember where you were, when you heard about the abuse?

INTERVIEW CLIPS, montage: So I was actually at a silent retreat for the weekend, so it was February 2020. / I remember I was laying on my couch and then one of my friends texted me and said ‘Hey have you heard about this?’ / I couldn’t believe it was real, I was like, no this can’t be right, what? Jean Vanier? / Like this is someone who claims to be a Christian. / Like I almost threw up. I know I’m laughing, but I’m laughing because I wanna like cry.

JENNA, narrating: Jean Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together as equals. Before he died in 2019, Vanier would refer to L’Arche as a school of love, and for starting that school, the New York Times called him “a savior of people on the margins.” America magazine called him “a living saint,” and personally, I had gotten into the habit of calling him a prophet of tenderness. Then in February 2020, news broke of his abusive behavior.

ARCHIVE CLIPS, montage of news anchors: Jean Vanier’s near saintly reputation now in question / He has been accused of sexually abusing at least six women, this from an internal report / After findings conducted by Vanier’s own charity suggest he engaged in manipulative sexual relationships that took place from 1970 to 2005. / But it does say they were all adult, non-disabled women. It said these women that did not know about each other’s experiences, reported similar facts, associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify his behavior, and it continued…

JENNA, narrating: Whenever I read about the abuse of spiritual leaders, an awful cocktail of sadness and anger settles in. But when I learned about the allegations against Jean Vanier, I felt scared too. Vanier had a progressive, inclusive theology. He was supposed to be different. The news of his abuse was a spiritual gut punch, one that left me with a lot of grief and a lot of questions. Small questions like, Do I burn his books? Scary questions like, If an abusive person shaped my understanding of God, how has that distorted my conception of the divine? And then really important questions like, How do we stop the abuse of charismatic leaders without hurting the beautiful movements they’ve led ?

I decided to take my questions to the people who would know best. Over the past year, I’ve spoken with dozens of L’Arche community members, past and present. Usually, I’ve had these conversations over the phone or Zoom. But last November, I had the chance to visit L’Arche Arlington, a community in the D.C. area.

[sounds of knocking on a door]

LUKE SMITH: Hi are you Jenna?

JENNA: Yes, are you Luke? Ok cool, good to see you, nice to meet you. How you doing?

LUKE: Pretty good.

JENNA, narrating: That’s Luke Smith, he’s the community leader and executive director of the L’Arche houses in the D.C. area. But he’s also a founding member of L’Arche Arlington. When he started there he was a live-in assistant. “Assistant” is L’Arche’s term for a person without disabilities who lives in the house and offers support to community members who have disabilities. That might look like helping their housemates cook dinner or brush their teeth or commute to their doctor’s appointments.

[sounds of footsteps going down stairs.]

LUKE: Yeah, the house was designed to have meals around this table … All of us were strangers, truly. And slowly but surely, we became family.

JENNA, narrating: One of those people, who went from stranger to family, is Charles Clark. Charles is also a founding member of the Arlington house. Twelve years ago, he joined the home as a core member. “Core member” is L’Arche’s term for a person with intellectual disabilities who lives in a L’Arche community. But Charles prefers the term “core family member.”

Before becoming a core family member, Charles lived in a different group home. He wasn’t happy there. Charles often talks about not being able to make coffee and how people watched over him too closely, accusing him of stealing. But L’Arche has been different, better. Here, he’s found the freedom, spirituality, and camaraderie that he was missing in his life.

When I first met Charles, he was dressed as a Texas Ranger. Crisp white shirt and a gold star badge. And a tall cowboy hat covering his gray hair.

JENNA: Hey Charles! I love your hat.

CHARLES: Thank you. What’s your name?

JENNA: I’m Jenna, nice to meet you.

JENNA, narrating: In his badge and hat, Charles did look intimidating. But he exuded this warmth and confidence, right away. It’s the same warmth that Luke felt when they met 12 years ago as new housemates.

LUKE: That day, when you came to Sixth Street, when Jessie and Caitlin brought you here,

JENNA, narrating: This is Luke describing Charles’ first day at L’Arche in 2012 — the day they met.

LUKE: … I remember opening the door and I’d never met you before. I’d heard about you. I’d only been in community two days before I met you. And I remember watching you get out the van, big, tall American man. And I opened the door and you said, “Hi, my name’s Charles Clark. I’m your brother.”

CHARLES: Right.

LUKE: Do you remember?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah.

LUKE: And I was like, oh, okay. Yeah. Nice to meet you, Charles.

[laughs in the room]

JENNA: What made him a brother, since you didn’t know him?

CHARLES: Well we’re all brothers and sisters, in Catholic faith and also, at at L’Arche.

JENNA, narrating: “Well we’re all brothers and sisters,” he said, “in Catholic faith and also at L’Arche.” So when Charles learned that Jean Vanier, the man who founded L’Arche nearly 60 years ago, turned out to be abusive, he was mad. Someone had messed with his family; or more specifically, the founding father of L’Arche had hurt his family.

CHARLES: I didn’t like that. I was mad as heck that he would do a thing like that. He’s supposed to be a religious man helping people, and he is, uh, giving us a bad name.

JENNA: How did you feel about him before that? Was he someone you looked up to?

CHARLES: Yeah. Uh-huh.

LUKE: We used to sometimes call 1-800-JEAN-VANIER when the house first opened.

CHARLES: Right.

LUKE: Because none of us knew what we were supposed to do. So we had this little joke that we’ll just call Jean Vanier and figure out what’s gonna happen. But it’s not a number we call anymore.

CHARLES: No.

JENNA, narrating: Just nine months before they learned the news, they had mourned Vanier’s death. He was 90. There was a funeral service for him in France, and it’s been streamed by about 50,000 people, but L’Arche D.C. also held their own memorial service to remember their founder. Not even a year later, they were mourning a different loss — not of life, but of legacy.

JENNA: If Jean Vanier were still alive, what would you wanna say to him?

CHARLES: I’d say, you done a bad thing — abused people. I could arrest him for that.

JENNA: You’d arrest him for that?

CHARLES: Oh, yeah.

JENNA, narrating: I gotta admit, a part of me loved the image of Charles, decked out in his Texas Rangers uniform, putting Vanier in handcuffs. I could tell that Charles was someone who cared about knowing right and wrong. He wants everyone to be treated equally.

JENNA: If you could talk to the survivors, the women who he hurt, what would you wanna say to them?

CHARLES: I’d say, uh, I’m very sorry this happened to you. God bless you. We’ll help you get on your feet.

JENNA: That’s kind.

CHARLES: I love those people that he hurt.

JENNA: You love them?

CHARLES: I love them, deeply.

JENNA: Even though you’ve never met them?

CHARLES: Right. Well maybe someday I will meet them.

JENNA: Well, I hope they feel that love.

JENNA, narrating : When Charles told me he loved the people Vanier hurt — women who live in France, whose names he doesn’t know — I believed him. Charles reminded me that it’s possible to love people you’ve never met. But there’s a scary flip side to that. You can also be hurt by someone you’ve never met. We know that Jean Vanier has been credibly accused of abusing six women. And abuse always leaves behind a trail of trauma. L’Arche communities across the globe are still trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

JENNA: Well, it sounds like the knowledge of this abuse broke something within L’Arche.

CHARLES: It did.

JENNA: What do you think y’all need to feel whole?

CHARLES: It broke all of our homes around the world too.

JENNA, narrating: “It broke all of our homes around the world too,” he said.

LUKE: Is there something that can bring that brokenness back together?

CHARLES: It can be done over a long period of time. Might take years.

JENNA: Yeah. Gotta be patient, I guess.

CHARLES: That’s right. You gotta be patient. Uh-huh

JENNA: Well, I, I hope that brokenness comes back together a little bit for you.

CHARLES: I hope it does too, but it’s gonna be awful hard.

JENNA, narrating: There are nearly 150 L’Arche communities in at least 35 different countries around the world, home to 10,000 people with intellectual disabilities and thousands of others without intellectual disabilities. So in the winter of 2020, there were 150 discussions in 150 different living rooms about the abuse of their founder.

TIM MOORE: In one of our L’Arche houses, there’s a living room slash dining room. And we gathered in that room where we’ve gathered before for important things.

JENNA, narrating: Tim Moore leads a L’Arche community in Atlanta, so he’s one of the people who had the difficult task of sharing the news of Vanier’s abuse with his community.

TIM: Everybody was sort of in a circle. And I stood opposite the kitchen. Dinner is important in L’Arche, and that table represents the community and the connection and the bonds and the commitment to each other. But I remember my hand was on the back of one of the dining room chairs, and I had, with my left hand holding the script, and I read it. And I remember my voice breaking a little bit as I read the words — not that I was getting choked up, but that these words were hard to say.

And then we paused, and then we read it again, and I read it again.

And so this was the first time that I was gonna hear anybody in our community’s responses to this. And so that also felt, um, scary. What’s gonna happen in this space?

One core member stood up with his mom right next to him and basically said, “This is awful. I condemn this. What a horrible thing.” And sat down. Another core member asked, “That’s bad, right?” Yeah, that’s very bad. Another person said, “Bad’s not enough. That’s not strong enough. It’s heinous.” Actually, I’m not sure what the word was, but it needed to be more than “bad.”

Another person expressed gratitude that there was no trying to qualify or, um, preserve any kind of positive legacy. That that posture was nothing but condemnation in support of the women.

I heard, “I’m not surprised.” And I heard a lot of silence.

JENNA, narrating: When I learned about Jean Vanier’s abusive behavior, it felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. I was in the airport, on my way back from a funeral, but learning that Vanier had abused six women felt like the real death of the trip. I walked to the corner of an unused Southwest Airlines gate, and clicked the New York Times push notification to read the details. While the story loaded, I remember feeling pissed at the New York Times. I know the anger was misplaced and unfair, but it was easier to kill the messenger than acknowledge my real fear: Are all the heroes secretly villains? Does power — even spiritual power — ultimately corrupt? In that moment, I couldn’t imagine trusting a famous faith leader ever again.

I had first learned about Jean Vanier in 2011. I was in college, becoming more and more disillusioned with a type of Christianity that spoke loudly about the afterlife, but stayed quiet about all the tiny living hells of the world: poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, war.

Vanier, on the other hand, saw a glimpse of hell, and decided to do something about it. This was the story I’d heard about him: In 1964, Vanier’s spiritual mentor took him on a tour of the psychiatric facility where he was a chaplain. There Vanier discovered, as he put it, “an immense world of pain.” This is not an exaggeration: At the time, asylums, which were notorious for overcrowding and abuse, functioned more as prisons than treatment centers. Vanier thought, there’s gotta be another way.

So he bought a broken-down house in France and invited two men from the mental institution to live with him. Vanier named the home “L’Arche,” French for “the ark.” And there, in a small village in a little house that had no running water or toilets, a movement began. Vanier travelled around the world to tell the story of their life together, and soon, L’Arche communities sprouted up in Canada, India, Australia, Haiti, and beyond — this constellation of communities where adults with and without intellectual disabilities have aspired to live, work, pray, and play together, all on an equal playing field. L’Arche became integral to the movement for the de-institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities, and Vanier became a best-selling author and a hero to Christians looking to practice a faith that prioritized those on the margins. A hero to Christians like me.

In 2015, I wrote a reported essay for Sojourners about the 50th anniversary of L’Arche. It was the first reporting I’d ever done. Looking back at that article now, it’s clear that I was enamored with L’Arche — and with Vanier. I don’t know if I really understood the difference between the two. Vanier was L’Arche. L’Arche was Vanier. So when I heard about the abuse allegations, I was, as Charles put it, mad as heck.

Yet I never lived in a L’Arche community. I couldn’t imagine how the news felt for someone like , who started as a live-in L’Arche assistant, has gone on spiritual retreats with Vanier, and has worked for L’Arche for over 12 years.

When I got the chance to talk to Tim, I asked him, What did it feel like when you heard about the allegations?

TIM: What I remember is driving down Memorial Drive home and it just hit me and I just started to sob while driving the car, which is dangerous. And so like, I tried to keep it together and I went straight home and thankfully I was close, and my wife was at home and I just fell into her arms and lost it. It felt like a death, and I still feel it. It’s still there. The damage of it, the horror of it, what these women went through, and I think some of my early questions were around the why and the how. How could you speak with such truth and yet have committed such horror? How could you have let yourself — someone who is so smart, so intellectual, so capable — fall prey to this thinking, this system of belief that led you down this path. How could you not see that as dangerous? How could you not see that as abusive?

And then of course, why’d you keep it a secret? Then you start to pull on that string. Or was it a secret? And, and did other people know? Was there a cover up? All those questions start to compound. And what then emerges was this incredible anxiety about organizational survival. I’ve given my life to this. My livelihood is invested in this. More importantly, I am responsible for very vulnerable people in the world. Can we continue to support these people if there’s this public narrative that shames L’Arche, and cuts off all of our support?

JENNA, narrating: Those were Tim’s initial questions. As time passed, he explained, the questions started to change, or at least, other questions started to gain more prominence. Two years after the fact, these are the questions that bubble to the surface.

TIM: What do we do with the legacy? What do we do with the story? What do we do with the teachings? What’s our self-understanding now? What do we need to extract? What do we need to keep? Do we burn it all?

JENNA, narrating: We’re going to try to answer those questions. This is Lead Us Not, a podcast from Sojourners magazine. Over the past year, I’ve spoken to dozens of L’Arche community members, past and present, and also scholars, theologians, and activists, all to try to understand, what do we do when the people we called living saints turn out to be secret perpetrators? This podcast focuses on Jean Vanier, in large part, because he’s the fallen faith leader who I used to love. But just as easily, this podcast could have been about John Howard Yoder or former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick or Ravi Zacharias or too many others to name here. Whenever a spiritual leader turns out to be abusive, their violence isn’t just isolated to the people they directly hurt. They also break something in the communities they founded, and in the people who admired them and read their books. When the leaders of beautiful movements die twice, can the movements they started survive? Reporting on this story taught me what it looks like for a loving community to pick up what’s broken and try to build something new.

[musical interlude]

Coming up on Lead Us Not, I dig into why we call people “living saints” in the first place.

TIM: It feels like kinetic authority. There’s a kind of magnetism that draws you. It’s kind of a guru effect and I was prey to it for sure.

JENNA, narrating: …and what role, if any, does charisma play in spiritual abuse?

KATELYN BEATY: I think about how charisma can sometimes be mistaken for a godly giftedness. Like because you’re so well-spoken, because you can get up in front of a crowd and preach a really good sermon, you must be called by God. And I don’t really believe that.

JENNA, narrating: Lead Us Not is a podcast from Sojourners magazine. It’s produced, written, and edited by me, Jenna Barnett, with executive production and story editing by Betsy Shirley. Sound design and mixing by JP Keenan, and factchecking by Joey Thurmond. Tiarra Lucas designed our podcast cover. Our music is by Borrtex and by Yehezkel Raz. The news clips you heard in today’s episode are from CBC News and City News.

Special thanks to the L’Arche community members in Arlington, for weloming me into their home. Lorrie, Charles, Larry, and Luke, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

For bonus content, related resources, and notifications when new episodes drop, sign up for our free newsletter at sojo.net/podcast. There you can also find transcripts for each show. If you like our show, please rate us and leave a review. You can stay in touch with us between episodes on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the hashtag #LeadUsNot.

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