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Years-long investigation answers L’Arche’s questions about founder’s abuse

For a full statement and reflection from our executive director and national leader, click here. 

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new report from an independent, interdisciplinary commission of French academics validates the claims of 25 women, without intellectual disabilities, against Jean Vanier who, as part of a sectarian group led by Vanier’s spiritual mentor, Thomas Philippe, identified people seeking spiritual guidance and exploited them for sexual purposes.

“On behalf of L’Arche in the United States, I condemn, strongly and without any reservation, the insidious grooming, the psychological and spiritual exploitation, the intentional use and abuse of power, the sexual violence, the lies, manipulation, and deceit by which Mr. Vanier and Mr. Philippe caused hurt and harm to their victims,” L’Arche USA Executive Director and National Leader, Tina Bovermann said. “We were not able to prevent, identify or report the abuses, and, consequently, we were not able to stop them. We offer our heartfelt and sincere apologies for the suffering that these situations created.” Victims of Thomas Philippe and of Jean Vanier, whether they live in France or abroad, have the possibility to engage, if they so wish, in a process of restorative justice.

Leaders with Paris-based L’Arche International launched a formal investigation into the theologian and founder’s life in 2019. That investigation validated the claims of the initial women and revealed no indications that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities were harmed. Based on that initial report, L’Arche created the independent Study Commission that further corroborates people living with intellectual disabilities were not harmed by Vanier, Philippe or other members of the sectarian group. Vanier’s relationships spanned from 1952 until just before his 2019 death.

“We did not want to dismiss our many questions,” Bovermann said. “As hard and painful as the truth is, it is also an opportunity to learn and to grow, to discard what is radically antithetical to L’Arche and to invest in what sustains L’Arche’s people and mission today.”

The Study Commission was tasked with investigating the hidden sect, which blended spirituality and sexuality and originated in the early 1950s, and any impact it may have had on the founding and development of L’Arche, since its beginning in 1964.

The report demonstrates how the sectarian group, dispersed since 1952, used the need to counter mass institutionalization of people living with intellectual disability as an opportunity to re-gather around their leader, Philippe.  It also sheds light on the mechanisms of control and abuse that the members of the group exercised.

“L’Arche as a project and as an organization has nothing to do with a sect,” the Study Commission’s report states. The six researchers found no indication that the beliefs and practices spread beyond the narrow circle of a few people. There is no evidence that the abuse proliferated within L’Arche. The academics spent more than two years poring over documents and conducting more than 100 interviews. The report is more than 900 pages long and is available here.

Since 2017, L’Arche has invested significantly in safeguarding of people with and without disabilities within L’Arche. The Study Commission report gives valuable insights into the dynamics of authority and power, spiritual expression and methods of accompaniment in L’Arche’s history. The new report will be used to renew L’Arche’s leadership model and curriculum, and to fuel momentum to make L’Arche as inclusive and diverse as its mission promises, particularly here in the U.S.

“We witness the power of L’Arche’s mission every day: friendships across differences; voices made heard; quality services provided, respect and laughter, celebrations, and joy, authenticity,” Bovermann said. “Truth can be painful. Truth is always powerful. Truth is always right. We believe in its justice and are grateful for the opportunities that it invites.”

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