Feb 29, 2020

Jean Vanier and the cult of the founder

Jean Vanier and the cult of the founder
Jean Vanier and the cult of the founder

Fr Raymond de Souza
Catholic Herald
February 27, 2020

The results of L’Arche’s investigation into their founder, Jean Vanier, were devastating on three levels.

The news that the man praised the world over as a “living saint” had a series of sexually coercive and abusive relationships with at least six women over decades stunned the Catholic world.

And not only the Catholic world; in Canada, where Jean Vanier was a national hero from Canada’s most prominent and admired Catholic family, the devastating news was on the front pages. Schools are named after him; the curriculum celebrates him. He was that rare religious figure who was celebrated also by a secular culture for his pioneering work with those having intellectual disabilities.

At first, the Vanier revelations may appear to be just another wearying case of sexual misconduct; though this time with adults not minors. Yet it is arguable that Vanier is the highest-ranking Catholic ever to be guilty of sexual misconduct.

Not according to clerical rank, but according to reputation for holiness and encouragement of same – which is the Church’s principal mission. While Theodore McCarrick had a high ecclesial rank as a cardinal, he was not known the world over as a holy man. That a man such as Vanier could be guilty of such great sins is a stark latter-day confirmation of the biblical truth – Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Peter – that the Lord’s anointed can do wicked things.

The second level on which the Vanier revelations resonate is the astonishing incongruity of it all. Vanier was known particularly for his work with the vulnerable and weak, bringing affection and love to those who were often excluded or overlooked. While his abuse of power was not with the “core” members of L’Arche – those with intellectual disabilities – it is hard to fathom how one with such generosity towards the vulnerable could also manipulate and exploit those who came to him for spiritual guidance.

The third level of the Vanier revelations relates to the new movements. The usual telling of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis is that of ossified clerical bureaucracies protecting their own. Yet recent developments have indicated that the new movements – so often hailed as a purifying breath of the Spirit – have also been something of a hunting ground for predatory behaviour.

The most famous case of course is that of the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder, the late Father Marcial Maciel, may indeed be the greatest fraudster in the long history of the Church. Just last month the Legionaries published the results of an internal investigation which showed that Maciel had shaped the very culture of the Legion to facilitate his predation and to protect him afterwards. But the Legionaries are only the most famous case.

The Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV) – Sodality of Christian Life – was founded in Peru by Luis Fernando Figari n 1971 and quickly spread to many different countries on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2017, the Vatican ordered Figari to have no contact with any SCV people or activities, having found him guilty of abuse of power and sexual abuse, as well as financial corruption.

Last week the Washington Post reported how McCarrick was a generous supporter of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE). He donated some $1 million and used his influence to spread their apostolate. The IVE was founded in 1984 in Argentina by Fr Carlos Miguel Buela. In 2016 the Vatican found him guilty of sexual misconduct with seminarians. He too has been forced to cut off all contact with his movement, and confined to a life of penance and prayer.

Just earlier this month, Pope Francis dismissed from the clerical state Argentine priest Roberto Juan Yannuzzi, founder and superior of the Miles Christi (Soldier of Christ) Institute, because of sexual sins with adults and a sacrilegious use of the sacrament of confession.

In several cases, similar to that of L’Arche, the initial complaints against the founder came from within the movement, and the movement itself did the initial investigation before involving the Vatican. That’s a sign that founders are not tyrants who have total control.

Yet the rash of cases with high profile founders invites a consideration of whether new movements might be particularly susceptible to such corruption, both sexual and financial.

Founders are essential in the life of the Church; they are ones who raise up new life when older forms of communal life have grown complacent or corrupt. Their newness though means that there are not institutional forms of accountability. It is not unusual for a certain cult to grow up around the founder, so that even his most banal pronouncements or practices are treated with adulatory reverence; conversely, any untoward behaviour can be ignored, or even willfully covered up.

The Vanier revelations confirm that sexual misconduct is not a priestly problem alone, that it can exist alongside great and manifest good works, and that even the sources of renewal in the Church – the new movements – are not exempt from this most sinful scourge.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca


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