We are gathering to support one another: Coming to grips with news of Jean Vanier’s sexual abuse

This is what we did yesterday, us shell-shocked people in L’Arche London.

We gathered. We heard the news again. We talked about how we were feeling.

And we ate pancakes, as is traditional in England on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

I have been utterly taken aback (and heartened) by the response to my previous blog post.
How to break bad news of sexual abuse by someone you trusted?

It seems that the analogies with death, and how we process things when someone dies, has struck a chord with you all. So, in the spirit of learning together, let me continue to share what is happening within our L’Arche London community. What worked for us might also work for you, or it might help you to think what the best way forward is for your own groups and communities. Or it might simply help you to be part of our London community, and communities across the world, struggling to cope with it all. This is too big to cope with on your own.

It seems that the simplest of scripts have the most powerful impact and the widest resonance, not just for people with intellectual disabilities, but for all of us.

We used the same script as we did on Saturday, but we did add something to it. In the past, gatherings like this (bad news, people upset, etc) has been about death, and some people with intellectual disabilities may have wondered who died. So, the community leader started thus:

We have some important news to share with you.

Nobody has died. Nobody here has done anything wrong. The news is about Jean Vanier.

Some people will have heard the news already. That’s OK. We will say the news again. You can hear it again. Some people have not heard the news yet. That is also OK. We will tell you the news.

Quite a useful script, I now realise. Because likewise, you (reading this) may have heard the news already – or perhaps this blog post is the first time you’re hearing and reading about it. Both are OK: I’m telling you again. (You can also read my previous blog, of course.)

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. (…) This news shocks us.

We had two meetings yesterday (to make sure most people could attend at least one of them) that were open to everyone, regardless of how long they’d been in L’Arche, or indeed what their relationship with the community was (parents, friends, neighbours, as well as current members, with and without intellectual disabilities).

We had thought that we should, perhaps, explain a bit more about the news this time. After all, most people had heard it three days earlier. We’d had that extraordinary meeting on Saturday.

So we wrote a longer script, kindly sent to us by another L’Arche community. This explained everything in 25 easy sentences (it had pictures as well; we printed it out so people could follow it on paper). We used it for the first of the two meetings.

It didn’t work. Even that easy-read version was just too much information. It tried to do too much:

  • Explain that there has been an investigation
  • Explain the history of Jean Vanier with Fr Thomas, with whom he started L’Arche in 1964
  • The Catholic Church had investigated allegations of sexual abuse by Fr Thomas
  • The Church believed them, and banned Fr Thomas from any kind of ministry
  • This inquiry was partly to investigate how much Jean Vanier had known about it
  • Then more women came and said that Jean Vanier had done some of the same things as Fr Thomas in private prayer meetings
  • L’Arche believed them.

Etc. Are you lost already? Is your brain working to take all this in? We found it was just too much to get our heads around. I found myself listening but switching off halfway through, whilst the community leader herself struggled to get through it all. Many of us needed to know these details, and that included some people with intellectual disabilities; but they needed more time and space (and perhaps in a smaller group, or simply in pairs) to read and hear and think about the details.

So, in the second meeting we went back to our initial script, which was based on this question we had asked ourselves:

What exactly is the bad news here?

All breaking-bad-news conversations should be based on that question. What is it, precisely, that makes this bad news for anyone? What is it about this long and terrible story that people most need to know?

For us in London, it was this:

Jean Vanier, a man we admired and loved and trusted, has sexually abused women. That is really, really bad and wrong. It is shocking and upsetting.

This affects us in all sorts of different ways. The triggering of people’s own stories of abuse. The breaking of trust. Our own self-image: something we have believed so strongly to be true, something we may have based our lives on, turns out to be wrong and false. Or we may simply be concerned about the future of the L’Arche community, or the tarnishing of spirituality and many people’s connection with their church.

It was also important to make it very clear that L’Arche believed the women and wanted to support them.

Underlying message: It doesn’t matter how important or powerful people are; if they do bad things, we need to stop them.

Again, as at our first meeting last Saturday, the community leader said the news twice. Slowly. This means I (and many others who made it to all the meetings) have heard it six times now.

It’s amazing how helpful that is. For something this shocking, it takes such a long time to sink in. It also helps us to SAY it to each other, again and again: This is what happened. How awful. Listen to this:

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.

And again, listen everyone:

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.

And again. And again.

The analogies with death are so strong.

How many of you have this experience? You have heard that someone you loved has died. Then you have to tell the news to someone else. Saying “My friend has died” is incredibly hard first time round, because it makes it real.  You have held yourself together (just), but when you tell someone else, it hits you hard. You may not even get to the end of your short sentence without crying. By saying it out loud, you make it true. Every time you say it afresh, it’s a little bit more true.

He has died. He really has died. It really happened. I can’t believe it. He has died. He has died.

We cry when we say it, but that’s exactly why we need to say it. That’s how we make sense of things.

I am full of admiration and gratitude for our young community leader, who had to do this: read it six times, slowly. Hearing terrible news spoken out loud, in the simplest possible way, was so important. I am grateful for the presence of people with intellectual disabilities in the group, because they forced us to simplify the message, and that helped all of us. It’s so easy to get caught up in complex thoughts, rationalisations, trying to find answers, but really, we first need to acknowledge the ESSENCE of the bad news, at the simplest level, which is also the deepest.

We then had a minute or two of silence, to stare at a candle flame and think about what we had heard.

This was extraordinary. The second meeting was the busiest, because people had finished their work and other activities, so many people with intellectual disabilities were able to come, as well as many assistants and friends. There must have been around 60 people in the room. And it was… silent. The quality of that silence was profound.

Imagine that: a large group of people, including people who find it very hard to be quiet. People who don’t use words and would not have understood what had just been said, who would usually be loud with excitement because they like it when everyone is together; people who find it hard to sit still and are often noisily anxious: all of us were quiet.

It was an almost physical sensation of bad news sinking in just that little bit further.

The next thing we did was split up in small groups of around six people.

We made sure these were as mixed as possible; each group should have people with intellectual disabilities, new people, and people who had been around a long (often very long) time. In these groups, we took it in turns to answer the following question:

How does the news about Jean Vanier affect me personally? How does it make me feel?

This was something the Canadian communities had shared with us, because it had worked well for them. (Quite marvellous how strong the sense of international unity is at the moment, with communities across the world trying to cope with this and sharing their hints and tips.)

I’m told this is based on Restorative Justice techniques. It worked like this:

  • Sit in a circle of 15 people or less.
  • Each person in turn shares as little or as much as they like, or they can choose to remain silent.
  • Others simply listen. No questions, no comments. Then the next person shares.

Because I went to both meetings, I did this twice. I thought the mixed groups were extraordinarily powerful.

Earlier, we had also gathered with around 20 long-term assistants, where we did something similar (so in fact I did the sharing-in-a-circle three times), and that too was powerful, because of the painfully (sometimes tearfully) honest sharing of raw feelings.

But I liked the mixed groups because of the strong sense of sharing this with the entire community, and the affirmation that there really is no hierarchy of distress. We cannot assume that new, young assistants who never knew Jean Vanier and have never read his books, are less upset or affected than the rest of us. They too are allowed to cry, and did, for various reasons that may not have been clear even to themselves.

And how about understanding? It was so clear that many people with intellectual disabilities were able to understand. Some people understood the detail and were deeply distressed by it, but also displayed extraordinary maturity. Their comments were to-the-point.

What on earth did he do that for??!!

That just about sums up the total bewilderment we all feel.

I talked to him! I sat next to him! I can’t think of that now! Why did I do it!!

So very important to stress it again: YOU did not do anything wrong.

They weren’t alone in thinking like this. We are all questioning ourselves. We loved Jean, in different ways – the person; the writing; the teachings; the example. Were we wrong? How could we be so very wrong?

Then there were people who didn’t speak, but who comforted us. One woman went round distributing hugs to those who really needed it most (the community leader, the people carrying the burden of supporting others). I didn’t know her very well, but she singled me out for a wonderful back rub. I hadn’t quite noticed how much my shoulders were hunched and aching, and how much of a burden I was carrying, but she had.

I cannot share in detail with you what people said in those groups, but the source of people’s distress was wide-ranging. Listening to each other was partly devastating, partly reassuring. I am not the only one. Me too, me too. YES! Now that you are saying it, I relate to that too.

The nightmares people described. Falling off cliffs, repeatedly. Being stuck in mud, unable to move your feet.

The stomach cramps, painful shoulders, headaches.

Let me just invite you into the circle and share with you some of my own feelings and reactions.

Being busy, thinking and talking through how to manage the situation, helping to plan these meetings, even writing this blog: call it a coping mechanism. At least something I can feel in control of. I thought I was doing OK.

Then, on Monday night, I went to the weekly rehearsal of my chamber choir. Great, I thought, that will be good, a bit of singing, good for the soul, it’ll take my mind off things. No such luck. This term’s repertoire consists of French songs, including several devotional songs about the Virgin Mary. It was when singing about Mary and Jesus, in French, that I was hit unexpectedly by a wave of nausea and unwelcome, intrusive images of the abuse suffered by the women. Snippets of the Summary Report that were so terribly devastating, the voices of the victims:

  • He said: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”
  • When I expressed my astonishment saying (…) how could I manifest my love to Jesus and to him, he replied: “But Jesus and myself, this is not two, but we are one. (…) It is Jesus who loves you through me.”

I had to run to the toilet for some powerful retching. There is no way I could stay for singing Sainte Vierge Marie, priez pour nous. (Dear choir master, if you read this blog: I apologise for my sudden, unexplained departure and can only hope that you have your alto back in time for the concert.)

What is shocking to me is the strength and physicality of that response, from me, someone who has never been abused – sexually or otherwise – and who only knew Jean marginally. My heart bleeds for the victims, for all victims of abuse. I am devastated for you all. I am furious with Jean.

I am also furious, absolutely furious, with him for ruining my love of that sacred music. I am furious for the way in which thinking about Jesus and Mary now leads me to think of his manipulative abuse.

Thank you, I said to the man who had exploded in anger on Saturday. Thank you for saying those swear words. Because it made me feel that it was OK for me to think them, too.

And I do, oh I do feel them.

The parallels with death really are strong.

As several people said: Jean died last year, but this is like a second death. And this is worse, in so many ways. Because we have not only lost the presence of the person we loved and admired, but also our image and admiration of him, and our love. Last year you could be forgiven for thinking we buried a saint. This week, we are wondering how on earth to bury the broken pieces. The saint has well and truly crashed down from his pedestal, and shattered, and we are staring at the pieces in absolute bewilderment.

What we need to find out over the coming weeks, months and years (I’m sure it will be years – grieving is long-term work) is this:

  • What exactly have we lost? What do we need to bury?
  • And what is it that we have NOT lost? What is L’Arche? What can we hold on to? What is our truth?

There is a silver lining to all this. Or at least I hope there is. I can see a glimmer of it, and it is this: the opportunity this gives all our communities to grow up. To see that L’Arche is bigger than its founder. To be stronger, and to survive, and not to be dependent on any one person. To understand much more profoundly the power we have over each other, and how dangerous that can be if it goes unchecked. How dangerous it is to put people on pedestals.

I am also heartened and hopeful, because paradoxically, in all my decades in L’Arche, I have never felt the strength and unity of our communities as much as this week. Plus, the support and encouragement received from people outside L’Arche has been so amazing. The recognition that yes, we have lost something huge, but we have not lost ourselves.

As some people so helpfully said (and these are all words from people with intellectual disabilities):

I love L’Arche. We have to remember all the good that L’Arche has done. All the good people who have been in L’Arche and then gone and done other things all over the world, good things. Lots of good things and good people have come out of L’Arche.

Thank goodness for our diversity.

Some of us respond with our heads first, some with our hearts, some with our bodies. If you are out there, struggling, confused, angry, sad, whatever: Welcome to the club.

8 thoughts on “We are gathering to support one another: Coming to grips with news of Jean Vanier’s sexual abuse

  1. Take care, Irene, and I do hope the musical association will fade. The sensitive handling of a difficult issue can indeed be a growing point, and I’m heartened to hear that this is the experience of L’Arche communities, individually and internationally. And – as a Quaker whose worship is based on silent waiting – I was glad to hear that your community discovered the spiritual power that can be found in a shared, profound silence. I’m “holding you all in the Light” as we say.

  2. Reading this is very therapeutic for me. As someone outside of L’arche, but very deeply moved by Vanier’s words, the news has less of an impact on my daily life, but because of this the community support is harder to find.

    I work with vulnerable populations, but most people I am with have never heard of Jean. Some know of him only vaguely. Other friends know of and admired him and find the news shocking and sad, but for me his works had, only in recent years, become very foundational to my sense of myself.

    Reading this piece, and I’ve read it multiple times now, helps me tremendously to be present to my own feelings and experience. It also inspired me to reach out to friends and share how the news had effected me.

    Thank you Ms. Tuffrey-Wijne and L’arche London for being a guiding light for my soul in this sadness.

    • I’m really glad this has helped a bit Dave, and that you were able to reach out to friends. As I said, there’s no hierarchy of distress. I’ve heard from many people outside L’Arche who have been deeply affected by this, and that is utterly valid. The sense of loss of something that has been part of your sense of who you are, is really hard. I think a lot of people who had taken to heart Jean’s example are struggling with this; as you say, it’s part of your sense of self. Warm wishes to you and, truly, welcome to the club!!

  3. Pingback: A Second Death – Grace@Sixty

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