Hero Worship Fails: Jean Vanier Falls

Hero Worship Fails: Jean Vanier Falls February 22, 2020
Fallen Hero
Lefteris Pitarakis / AP / SIPA

Hero and living saint?—no, just a fellow dying inmate in the mental asylum that is the world.

Hero. Saint. Mystic. These are the words that roll off the tongue for Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian, Jean Vanier. He founded L’Arche meaning “the Ark,” a home for men with developmental disabilities, in Trosly-Breuil, France. Its work of love spread worldwide. Vanier co-founded Faith and Light, a movement in 86 countries uniting in friendship people with and without intellectual disabilities.

Vanier was a prolific author and his words brim with wisdom, spirituality, compassion, and humanity. Among these are “Tears of Silence” (1970), “Eruption to Hope” (1971), “Followers of Jesus” (1976), “Community and Growth” (1979), “The Broken Body” (1988), “From Brokenness to Community” (1992), Becoming Human (1998) and “Befriending the Stranger” (2005).

His accomplishments and wisdom are legendary. He died last year, 2019.  Here is his funeral:

And now revelations are coming out that Vanier allegedly committed repeated acts of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse with six non-disabled women.

Hero? Saint? Villain? Devil?

Michael J. O’Loughlin from America Magazine just broke a story that the late Vanier has been accused of emotionally and sexually manipulating at least six women between 1970 and 2005:

Internal report finds that L’Arche founder Jean Vanier engaged in decades of sexual misconduct

Worse, the story explains that Vanier is linked with a priest and Dominican scholar, Rev. Thomas Philippe (d. 1993), also accused of similar sexual and spiritual abuse. Allegedly, Vanier’s behavior is patterned after Philippe’s own brand of abuse. Six alleged victims have accused Vanier himself of misconduct along these lines and over decades of time. A report conducted by L’Arche itself will soon be released detailing that these allegations are credible.

Many good people working for L’Arche are devastated.

Hero Worship Catholic Style

My day job places me among many lauded “heroes.” Where I come from, clericalism is like air: it surrounds us, it fills our lungs, it’s breathed in and out. Priests are assumed to be heroes, their worst vice greater than a lay person’s highest virtue. But there are also “lay heroes” where I live. The drugs of acceptance, applause, and approval are sold at every Catholic event. They get injected, inhaled, imbibed, snorted up the nose, with the teeth grinding for more. Instead of metanoia, we set ourselves up for these cosmic failures like Vanier in a much smaller scale.

But Vanier helped me. His words continue to help. This scandal hits hard even though I never met the man. My mother suffered from severe mental and emotion disorders throughout her life. She spent her last years in agonizing weakness. And I was so weak in the situation, myself. Helpless. Got wounds from those times. Years later, Vanier would speak healing words to me through his short films and books. I can’t deny the truth of his words. He helped my ministerial work. And yet, it seems credible that he hurt people. Yes, this hits home.

Here comes Dr. Bill Cosby again. Again here comes another Catholic abuser. Here comes revelations that all the wisdom and goodness is just a facade of bullshit hiding manipulation and selfishness. He talked a big game about weakness and finding Christ in it, but maybe he just used it to lure women helpers… or worse. It’s hard to testify against a hero. How dare anyone speak out against a living saint? And how many victims have not come forward? How many will never be able to do that?

Supposedly this abuse took place over decades. This “hero” was manipulating and victimizing women sexually. Why didn’t we see it? His followers saw the hero, but not the hurt of those who orbited his star?

Come to the Hero

People come seeking spiritual guidance and healing from “living saints” like the hero, Jean Vanier. They place themselves into this amazingly vulnerable place. It’s like sitting calmly and trustingly in your favorite barbershop getting your hair cut. If she wanted to, the barber could gouge out your eyes, slit your throat, slice off your bottom lip, and savage your ears. Or she could help you trim what isn’t wanted. There’s a power exchange similar, but far deeper, going on with a spiritual director. Such a brilliant “wounded healer” can be a godly midwife or instead choose to play God.

Ministry can be exhausting. Being the “hero” and the “living saint,” a hundred times more so. This cannot excuse abuse. But it can help to explain why abuse happens. Ministers can escape from life into playing Church. The “good priest” can become so obsessed with being seen as the good priest that he becomes miserable behind a mask of smiles. He begins to do good in order to avoid the guilty feelings of being thought of as bad. Falling into burn-out can wreck a man, and asceticism for the sake of asceticism does not lead to losing the self. How often in Catholic circles do we interpret self-denial to mean going against one’s needs.

When the hero is always being praised, always being put on the pedestal, a lot of effort and resources must go into the business of keeping up appearances. This is taxing. And we create the environment for disasters when we forget that there really are no heroes. There are no great ones! Instead all around us are people born between urine and feces and soon to be the feast of worms. Just like you. We ought to expect even a great “hero” to be selfish. Crazy. Inconsistent. Just like me. Just like you.

Hero? Or Fellow Dying Person?

Here is a great wisdom I learned from a Happy Wanderer and Master: For everyone you meet, tell yourself: This person is a fellow dying inmate, lovable yes, but not too loving, with crazy ideas about truth, happiness, peace, love, and God. And I too am dying and crazy. Lovable, but not too loving.

I truly believe that this is the only credentialing we’ll ever need. The reason being it is the only real foundation when meeting someone, anyone. Therefore it’s the launchpad for empathy.

But love takes being conscious, and we’d rather sleep while the victim suffers. All done in a guise of spirituality. But real spirituality means waking up. Spirituality has to mean contact with reality, otherwise it is nothing (Cf. Mark 1:15; Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Isaiah 60:1; Ephesians 5:11-14).

The Happy Wanderer taught me that “most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.” Yes. And they go to Church asleep, too (John 5:25, 28; 8:51; 11:25-26; Revelation 3:1).

Wake up, Hero!

No one wants to get out of bed when they’d rather be dreaming through life. But life is lived, and meant to be lived awake. Anything that does not help us wake up—i.e., bring us back to reality—is counterfeit. Including religion-play, verbal orthodoxy, going through the motions, tradition-worship.

But we go on sawing zzz’s in moral cowardice. Most so-called “Christian” activities and programming are just escapes from reality, distractions and drugs meant to dull the pain of the necessary amputations that must take place so that we can become sensitive and loving.

It looks as if our fellow dying inmates at L’Arche are waking up. It looks like they are behaving admirably here and allowing victims to be heard. If so, then may L’Arche raise phoenix-style from the ashes of the scandal unscathed. We need to listen to those who have suffered injustice and not worry about cover-up. We need to go “ouch!” when others are hurting. And the good work done to those on the margins needs to keep on in these dark, dark days!

Thoughts are welcome…





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  • denis

    Great article , thank you . Ive worked as a mental health chaplain for years . I am shocked at this dreadful news re Vanier , a Catholic hero of mine .
    There does seem to be some pathological schizoid thing with some clerical abusers and single men like Vanier which allows them to abuse in the very name of God ! This is a very ugly skeleton in the closet which is so difficult to detect .
    Sex is a sleeping giant in all of us , but more efforts need to be made in helping men & women in coming to terms with their own sexuality in a mature and adult way . Vanier was old school ….in that sexual development was never discussed openly ….he must have suffered .

  • He suffered?

    This article has decent things to say about hero worship and nearly nothing to say about the victims.

    Revelations like these aren’t time for understanding the perpetrators or our relationships to them, they are times of justice for those they harmed.

    I can’t imagine the spiritual damage done to each and every woman affected by the choices of these two venerated men.

    Christ have mercy.

  • Ame

    It continues to be distressing. The thought that helps me keep calm and carry on is that no one escapes God’s justice and that it is God’s mercy to the rest of us that He ever allows people with demons inside them to do any sort of good.

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    This article has decent things to say about hero worship and nearly nothing to say about the victims

    Actually how much information other than scant details is available about those victims? You are right to champion them though. This article is about us ENABLING “heroes.”

    Revelations like these aren’t time for understanding the perpetrators or our relationships to them, they are times of justice for those they harmed.

    Part of the justice is understanding how we continually allow this to happen. This isn’t to get sentimental about the abuser. Look at the shock. Should it be really that shocking? The patterns we continually set enable the abuse. That is what this piece is about.

    I can’t imagine the spiritual damage done to each and every woman affected by the choices of these two venerated men.

    I agree, Zena. Horrific. Lord have mercy.

  • Eric S Giunta

    It”s a shame that Fellow Dying Inmate’s theology, spirituality, and metaphysic is so morally, intellectually, and spiritually bankrupt that he has no clue how to handle this situation, except to use it as yet another weapon in his arsenal against the people he hates with such passion, namely orthodox Catholics. He’s rather like the self-righteous mother who recently videotaped her traumatized child having an emotional breakdown so she could peddle his pain for quick cash and celebrity.

    In fact, it’s not true that we are all doomed to the mediocrity of being “fellow dying inmates,” or that God’s Church is nothing more than an insane asylum. We really are capable of heroism, and really are capable of villainy. Mr. Dying Inmate’s “asylum” metaphor is self-justifying moral mediocrity and heresy masquerading as profundity. He justifies his own moral scumbaggery by telling himself he’s no worse than anyone else.

    Incidentally, those with their finger on the pulse saw these revelations on Vanier coming for at least the last several years, ever since Vanier came out in support of euthanasia. Whenever any Catholic in a leadership position expresses hatred toward the Church’s worldview, it’s almost always as a cover for his own sin and depravity.

  • Dee F

    Thanks so much…. I’ve been angry and depressed about this revelation all weekend. I wrote an article many years ago, before Vanier’s work was so well know, about the Daybreak centre just north of Toronto. Vanier indeed became a hero of mine.
    These types of revelations are becoming so common that when I first saw his name trending I thought, “Oh no!” I can’t help thinking that if he had been raised and had worked in a different tradition, one that had more respect for women and empowered them more, he might have fallen into a shallower pit.

  • swbarnes2

    I can’t help thinking that if he had been raised and had worked in a different tradition, one that had more respect for women and empowered them more, he might have fallen into a shallower pit.

    So to get your metaphor clear, assaulting women is like digging the pit? and the problem isn’t that, it’s the publicly falling into the really deep pit that he dug himself?

    Talking about sexual abuse like it is the moral equivalent of accidentally tripping is why nothing is ever going to change.

    He abused people, and other people heard the complaints, and did nothing. That’s how authoritarian hierarchies roll. That’s how the hierarchical elites want them to go, And as long as the rank-and-file doesn’t mind that set-up enough to close their wallets, nothing will change.

  • Dee F

    You’re right. Not the best metaphor.

  • Vanier is dead so I’m not sure what earthly justice can do.

  • Regional res

    I think the article confirms the author’s primary concern for the victims. I also think that Fellow Dying Inmate recognises the many facets of abuse. While considering the adult victims, one immediately then wonders about possible damage to L’Arche residents – could they have been victims too? Then there is the fallout to those in Jean Vanier’s own circles – colleagues in ministry, his friends & relationships, his clients. And yes to Vanier himself.

    And don’t forget those of us who do (did) look up to people like Vanier, and see yet another Church figure (lay, this time) accused of abuse. His book Community and Growth had a big impact on me. Echoing Dee F’s comment, “oh no!” Not another one.

    Lord have mercy, indeed.

  • Mike Panic

    Typical kkkatlik. Rape the innocent while faking piety. Too bad he was not burned at the stake.

  • Mike Panic

    Do you mean the godthing that spent 17 CENTURIES whacking off enjoying the cries and screams of the innocent? Your god will welocome him with open arms for all the free entertainment he provided. THAT is your god that allowed 17 centuries of debauchery.

  • Mike Panic

    Yes, another one.

  • Ame

    Right now I am more concerned as to whether there is anything you would like for me to do for you.

  • Johnboy

    Who’s next?

  • fractal

    Time to dump men as leaders, and make the priests, bishops and popes WOMEN.

    They couldn’t possibly do worse than the men have, and will probably do a lot better.
    You had your chance guys, and you blew it big time.

  • DoctorDJ

    Now apply your same hero-worship logic to Mary Bojaxhi.

  • swbarnes2

    Right. It’ll all be fixed. Eventually, by someone else. Without any need to inconvenience yourself.

    The real crime here is that you are distressed.

  • Ame

    O God, may we repent of what we have done and we have failed to do, through our fault, our most horrible fault. For we have failed to protect the vulnerable, failed to listen to victims, failed to root out predators. We have left this work to shepherds who do not shepherd as the flock is ravaged. We deserve the weight of our guilt for we are no better than our fathers. Amen

  • Rad Notion

    For crying out loud, get over it. The guy is just another sleaze-bag in the pantheon of Catholic creeps…

  • Mr. James Parson

    Donate money to something besides the church. If enough people do that, maybe they will cleanup their act.

  • fractal

    How many centuries do you want to wait?

    I have a story.

    When I was about nine years old, my blue collar family was visited by three pin-striped suits from the “new church building fund” from our parish.
    They were quite intimidating—real “salesmen” types who knew all the tactics.
    And they looked terribly out of place in our 950 square foot “beginners ranch”.

    But they were sitting in our living room, trying to get my parents to commit to donating MORE money over the next three years.

    I remember my mom in tears, with a pile of bills in her lap, trying to explain that they barely made enough to pay Catholic school tuition for three kids, she was behind on our pediatrician bills because the kids were sickly, her mother just had a stroke 2000 miles away and she couldn’t even afford the air fare to go see her…

    Nevertheless, these goons were trying to tell her she should have faith in God, and donate more each month, not less.

    My father never said a word, he just hung his head; he wasn’t even Catholic.

    Years later we learned that more than 50% of the “building fund” went to the diocese and the Vatican; which explains why it took 18 years to actually build the new church.