Mar2MonMarch 2, 2020
On the weekend of February 22nd 2020, Canadians learned of the devastating results of an independent inquiry, undertaken by L’Arche International –a non-profit organization committed to the protection and empowerment of persons with intellectual disabilities in 38 countries worldwide –which investigated allegations of abuse by its revered founder, Jean Vanier. The report found that Mr. Vanier, who died in 2019, had emotionally and sexually abused six (non-disabled) women over a period of several decades, between 1970 and 2005. The inquiry also indicated that his abuse was highly coercive and manipulative, “[…] with highly unusual spiritual and mystical explanations used to justify these behaviours.” It also revealed Vanier’s acknowledgment and adoption of sexually abusive practices perpetrated by Father Thomas Philippe, which Vanier had denied knowledge of in 2015.
As per the vast majority of abusive situations, the women who came forward all described themselves as being vulnerable at the time Vanier exploited them. Sworn to secrecy and intimidated by Vanier’s authority as a spiritual leader, manipulative tactics and his high-profile position at L’Arche, they were afraid to come forward. This is all too common of situations in which power imbalances are leveraged within organizations, to victimize the vulnerable.
Representatives of L’Arche denounced and condemned the appalling abuse at the hands of Vanier, and expressed solidarity with the women he victimized, whilst emphasizing that they have no reason to believe the abuse was ever geared toward participants of their program. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops likewise stood by the victim-survivors, whilst reiterating L’Arche’s sustained commitment to protect the vulnerable.
Despite this, L’Arche International will thoroughly evaluate its current protection policies and procedures through an independent investigation. L’Arche’s Federation of communities for disabled persons will now also have access to a newly created centralized whistleblowing procedure, to report any abusive behaviours. Information will subsequently be dealt with by a Safeguarding Response Team, comprised of people within and outside L’Arche, with the aim of best protecting the vulnerable adults in the organization’s care.
The news about Vanier has shocked members of the Christian community, the non-profit sector, organizations servicing the vulnerable, and academic circles. Such spheres have since sought to reconcile such abuse with the charity work and writings of the now-disgraced humanitarian, philosopher and theologian.
As a consultancy agency committed to equipping organizations servicing youth, children and vulnerable adults in all matters of abuse prevention and vulnerable sector protection, we at Plan to Protect® share the sadness of L’Arche’s greater community. At the same time, we are reminded that “[…] no segment of our society is immune” to abuse scandals –even the places which resolutely seek to create safe places for the vulnerable (Safe Sanctuary, p. 18). We commend L’Arche for seeking to assess and upscale their protection policies and procedures, to ensure no harm is experienced by the vulnerable within its programming.
But we also wish to remind our partners of the manifold implications of abuse prevention. As we have read and grieved the reports pertaining to this scandal, we distinguish the contradictory nature of Vanier’s actions: here was a man whose work was dedicated to the safeguarding and empowerment of the vulnerable –namely adults with disabilities - yet actions in his private life explicitly harmed a different part vulnerable sector –namely vulnerable women.
The question remains: How could someone perceived as a champion of the vulnerable sector and its protection commit such grievous predatory behaviours?
Vanier’s empowerment of persons with disabilities in tandem with his abuse of vulnerable women is hypocritical at best, and inexcusably corrupt and malicious. It begs the question: what does it actually mean to be a champion of the vulnerable sector and its safety?
We urge members and partners of Plan to Protect® to remember this: protecting the vulnerable sector is, ultimately, a mission that requires UBIQUITOUS integrity –in the organizations in which we serve, and in our personal lives as well.
As we all endeavour to fulfill the HIGHEST standard of protection, both as individuals and organizations, let us ask yourselves the following:
Are we, on the one hand, championing the protection of children and youth –yet turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of those with disabilities, the elderly or newly arrived refugees and immigrants? It is of utmost importance to understand that the vulnerable sector is comprised of all people at greater risk than the general population to be mistreated. Protecting the vulnerable sector thus means defending the dignity and safety of all its members.
At Plan to Protect®, we emphasize the following principles for good supervision, called “Reducing the Risk”:
All such principles are applicable to the abuse perpetrated by Vanier, who leveraged his position of trust to victimize women. Predators perpetually occupy leadership positions and, given their authority, charisma, or strategic thinking, manage to work with little accountability while garnering people’s faith in their goodwill. By failing to increase supervision and accountability –even for our most beloved and seemingly trustworthy leaders –we put the vulnerable at risk. Do not have this kind of blind spot when it comes to your staff and volunteers. Ask tough questions, give regular feedback, remind one another of protection procedures, and hold one another accountable. Ensure isolation is avoided at all costs, and maintain a HIGH standard of protection for everyone who serves in your midst.
The Vanier scandal highlighted the fact that abuse nearly always includes coercion and a power imbalance: the charity founder used his spiritual and moral influence and authority to harm women, epitomizing the adage about a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
We must consistently call out bullying, racism, ageism, ableism and sexism as soon as we become aware of them. Whether you witness a microaggression, a prejudiced joke or a full-fledged situation of abuse, do not minimize it – take action. Remember reporting requirements in your area and regularly review protection policies in your organization. In doing so, you are creating a culture and environment with zero tolerance to abuse, in any shape or form. Condemning even what seems like a trivial toxic behaviour helps catalyze holistic change regarding systemic inequalities and problems.
In addressing situations of abuse, we must make sure not to dismiss dangerous and toxic behaviours with statements like “boys will be boys!” –but instead stand with victims and make institutional and operational changes to prevent such behaviours.
Here at Plan to Protect®, we applaud the courage of the women who came forward about the abuse they endured. We are glad to see that L’Arche is amplifying the voice of these victim-survivors and seeking to review its safeguarding policies and procedures, so no abuse ever takes place within its programming or leadership.
We grieve the fact that this type of situation is all too common and familiar. Our hope continues to be that organizations would RAISE THE BAR on protection, doing everything in their power to make sure all vulnerable people are heard, empowered and safe. We trust that, when love remains the motivation of those committed to abuse prevention, long-lasting change can occur.
“I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits […]”
–Henri Nouwen, writer and theologian who spent a large part of his career
serving within the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario