Here is some seriously bad news. A man who was loved by thousands, respected by millions, a man who has inspired people across the world and who has articulated values that so many people (including myself) have taken to heart – that man turns out to have been a serial sexual abuser.
Jean Vanier was the charismatic founder of the L’Arche communities (1964), where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their daily lives in a spirit of friendship and recognition of each person’s unique value. He died last year at the age of 90. His funeral was broadcast across the world.
Jean Vanier was a universally respected leader whose example, teachings, talks and books about community, disability and inclusion transformed lives. He was a spiritual man who was welcomed, celebrated and loved everywhere – from popes and queens to people with profound disabilities. It wasn’t long after he died that there was talk of canonisation. Saint Jean.
So when news of his sexual abuse hit the headlines yesterday, it hit us – members of L’Arche communities all over the world – like a ton of bricks. The detail is distressing.
To its enormous credit, L’Arche International had commissioned an external agency to conduct a thorough and independent investigation. Yesterday, L’Arche International released their comprehensive summary report and unequivocal statements of shock and condemnation. I won’t repeat it all – you can click on the links yourself – but it does not make for pretty reading. The evidence is strong and compelling, leading L’Arche to affirm a number of things, including these horrific facts:
The inquiry received credible and consistent testimonies covering the period from 1970 to 2005 from six adult women without disabilities… The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual behaviours with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Some of these women have been deeply wounded by these experiences. Jean Vanier asked each of the women to keep the nature of these events secret. They had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, but these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these sexual behaviours. These actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold Jean Vanier had on these women.
This news affects us profoundly.
Many of my friends (including people with intellectual disabilities) have known and loved Jean Vanier, some for many decades. I respected him. I didn’t know him well (although I once co-facilitated a retreat on Death & Dying with him, in the tiny French village of Trosly-Breuil, the first L’Arche community).
Learning of Jean’s sexually and spiritually abusive behaviour makes us feel deeply betrayed, sickened, confused, ashamed (how could this happen under our noses? Are we ourselves tainted by implication?). Distressed beyond words for the women who suffered.
I can tell you much more about this, but what I really want to focus on is Breaking Bad News. How do you share this news with everyone?
It should be my comfort zone. Haven’t I written a book called How to break bad news with people with intellectual disabilities? The leaders in L’Arche London, who had been given the news in advance of the press release so they could prepare and support their communities, certainly thought so. A few days ago, they asked my advice.
This was going to affect so many people in so many different ways. The shock and betrayal. The breaking of trust. But also the echoes: many people in L’Arche have themselves been victims of sexual abuse. As with a death, when painful memories of previous losses are forced to the surface, news about sexual abuse is bound to evoke people’s own memories of being abused.
Do we tell everyone together? Individually? Separate meetings for those with and without intellectual disabilities?
And crucially: how to explain? What words to use? How much detail?
It was clear to us that NOT talking about it was not an option. As with death and dying, a conspiracy of silence (for whatever reason, including He won’t understand or It will be too upsetting) would not only be dreadful; it is exactly the conspiracies of silence that make it possible for abuse to continue. So, yes, we need to talk about this with everyone. Including people with intellectual disabilities.
But nobody knew the script. There was a letter and video from the international leaders, which was very good and honest and painful – but rather wordy (and partly in French). Suitable only for those of us who understand long words (and even then, it was hard to take in at first). There was a series of 18 graphic drawings, trying to explain the investigation and its findings in easy-read format. Whether we used these resources was up to us.
In the end, this is what we did…
(And I’m sharing this here, because I think it was the right thing to do, and it might help other people and other organisations.)
I had no idea how to break bad news of sexual abuse by someone we admired and loved. But one thing I do know: L’Arche deals with “death and dying” better than most. (In fact I can’t think of anywhere or anyone doing it better.) When somebody dies, we have a pattern, rituals, ways of sharing and talking and experiencing that has developed over decades, and it is brilliant. It is open, honest, direct, both about the facts and about the emotions.
Could we harvest that wisdom now? I found that we could. Here was some really, really serious bad news that most of us had not expected, and that affected us deeply. What would we do if somebody had died? This:
We all gather together immediately, on the day of the death. We share the news simply. Our friend has died. We are sad and upset.
We think about the friend. We cry. We can’t believe it. Crucially, this is a community event, and no-one is excluded. Not everyone understands what death is, but that doesn’t matter. We all understand distress. At that first gathering, we share and absorb the shock together. This is not the time to start explaining exactly what death is, or how our friend has died (although if anyone wants to know this, we tell them).
So that’s what we did. We simply called everyone together, so that we could be hit by the bombshell together. We did not exclude people with intellectual disabilities from this, because if you tell the assistant teams first, you deprive people of the chance to see how upsetting this is for everyone, and of the chance to be supported AND to offer support (as you will see later).
We decided against using the video and the 18 pictures. As with a death, that first meeting is not the time to start explaining (in simple words, pictures or otherwise) what sexual abuse is. If people don’t understand this, they do not need to understand it immediately. What they need to know is that something upsetting has happened, something serious, that affects and upsets everyone around them – including those that help them in their daily lives. Those who do need to know more (and many did; there were many questions) were given the full report afterwards; some of us watched the video together afterwards.
Unfortunately, the news got to the press earlier than anticipated. It hit the headlines yesterday morning (Saturday), unexpectedly. We thought this would happen on Tuesday, so that’s when we were going to have our big bombshell meeting.
More phone calls. What to do? It’s the weekend! Should we meet with everyone on Monday?
Again, it helped me to think through the analogies with death. What would we do if there was an unexpected and sudden death? On a Saturday morning?
We needed to come together immediately. We did not want people to hear this, and wonder about this, and not be able to share it together for several days.
The community leaders told all their members, current and past, and some important long-term friends, to come along for an important meeting in a couple of hours’ time. I was on a rare weekend away with my husband, but jumped on a train back to London. As you would when somebody has died. It was as big as that.
A few hours later, I looked around the packed meeting room. Like me, others had dropped everything. There was the founder of this L’Arche London community, along with other founder members who have been around for over 40 years. There were the newest members. The local priest. Our long-standing neighbour and friend, now in her 80s, who recently buried her husband and had asked the mourners to make donations to L’Arche. A few parents of people with disabilities. People who don’t understand words, and people who do. For late-comers, it was standing room only.
That is the one positive element of my sorry tale. I looked around the room – we all did – and we knew exactly what our community leader meant when she said: This is community. I LOVE this community!
This is what the community leader said at the meeting.
I can tell you verbatim, because we made a script. This was too difficult, too unprecedented, to do off the top of your head.
We have some important news to share with you. The news is serious. You may find it difficult. Would you like to take a minute to look around you and make sure that there is someone near you who can support you? – someone you feel comfortable with. I am going to wait a minute to give you some time to make sure you have someone to support you next to you. You can move around and sit near someone who can support you.
She waited for people to do this. Then she said this, slowly.
The news is about Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier was the person who started L’Arche. He did many good things and we are grateful for that. Last year he died.
We have now learnt some things we did not know about him.
Six women told us that Jean Vanier has hurt them. These women said that when they were meeting Jean Vanier alone, to talk about their spiritual life, he touched them in a sexual way. He abused them.
They did not want this. They did not like this. It upset them.
L’Arche says very strongly that what Jean Vanier did was wrong. Our community says that what Jean Vanier did was wrong. We say that what Jean Vanier did was wrong.
L’Arche International is working to make sure everyone in l’Arche is safe. Our community is working to make sure everyone here is safe. We are working to make sure that nobody will sexually abuse anyone. We all need to be safe. Safe and respected.
This news shocks us.
And then she said exactly the same words again. Hearing it once is not enough.
We took some time to talk to each other in pairs, in small groups. We came back to the big group and some people shared how they felt. There were tears.
I was deeply moved by the response of some of the people with intellectual disabilities. Whilst many of us tried to process the news in our heads, one man articulated his feelings more accurately than anyone else. When he heard the news, he exploded. Both his shoe and his chair suffered some light damage.
He’s a dirty old bastard! I thought I could trust L’Arche!
He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to stay in L’Arche now, because if you can’t trust the great Jean Vanier, then who can you trust?
But sharing all our distress together helped him not only to process the news, but to show maturity:
He is a dirty fucking bastard… But I’m glad I’m in L’Arche. We need to look after each other.
And turning to a long-term assistant:
How are you? You knew him for so long. This must be really hard for you.
This is also one of the positives of my sorry tale. The confirmation, yet again, that we do not just support people with disabilities: we all support each other, and they need to be able to support us. We were not alone in our anger and in our questioning. The long-term assistant could tell him that she, too, was furious with Jean.
We took some time to be silent. We said some prayers, sang a song (what to sing? Honestly, we could all do with a proper script for this kind of thing!)
Then we drank tea and ate biscuits. Some of the long-term assistants stayed to talk and share some more of our feelings. A few people who couldn’t make it had joined the whole thing via video-link.
And we decided that on Tuesday, we will meet again as planned, and we will do the whole thing again. Quite a few community members couldn’t make it; they need to share in this. And many of us who were there, wouldn’t mind hearing it all again. Difficult news doesn’t sink in all at once.
I don’t know what will happen next, or how we are going to work through this.
There will have to be many more meetings, together and in small groups. We will need to look at the detail, understand it, absorb it. That takes time. I’ve read the report three times now, and each time I am even more deeply shocked, because the gravity of what has happened is sinking in.
We will need to come to terms with a new version of our history, and for many of us, with memories of abuse.
But I do know that the best thing, the only thing, is to be utterly open and transparent. To look at painful dark things, examine them, expose them. I am relieved and impressed with L’Arche, nationally and internationally, for its determination to do this. There should be no more secrets. It must have been so hard for these six women to share their experiences, and we are devastated for them, and grateful to them.
I am grateful for the determination of the L’Arche international leadership, who said in their letter:
The words of those who have testified bring to light a troubled part of our history, but they give L’Arche the opportunity to move forwards with a better understanding of our history and, ultimately, better equipped to face the challenges of our time.
Let’s hope so. When I first heard the news, I despaired. But I looked around at all these people yesterday, who had gathered at the drop of a hat, and I have real hope there is a future for our communities.