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Coming to terms with Christian leaders who do terrible things

“The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

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William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2

The worldwide L’Arche movement – which houses people with a disability, together with assistants without a learning disability – is having a Shakespearean moment with the announcement that their founder, Jean Vanier, abused women.

At almost the same moment, two very different Christian movements – Acts 29, a church planting movement, and L’arche, an ecumenical ministry of mercy – have been confronted with abuse by their leaders.

Those of us who see much to admire in both movements are suffering whiplash.

Steve Timmis has been removed as head of Acts 29, due to allegations of authoritarianism and bullying. The Acts 29 story was covered by Eternity here, with an important blog post by Aussie Stephen McAlpine, who spent time in Timmis’ Crowded House ministry in the UK.

“We began to see other things too,” McAlpine wrote. “I’d had a few run-ins with Steve over what I considered an overbearing leadership style, a heavy-handed approach that stifled creativity in younger men. So even though a succession of younger men became interns in our time there, the role of intern looked a little too much like being ‘broken in’ – an exercise in making sure they were humble enough to be involved in this ministry. The proof that one was humble enough appeared to be enough menial household tasks done often enough over time.”

The Acts 29 and L’Arche crises have one thing in common: behind the various types of abuse was a detailed theological justification.

L’Arche have been extremely transparent about Vanier, releasing a series of documents that recount their investigation of his abusive relationships with women.

“The inquiry received credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005,” a L’Arche announcement reveals. “The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment. Although they had no prior knowledge of each other’s experiences, these women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviours. The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships. These actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold Jean Vanier had on these women and confirm his own adoption of some of Father Thomas Philippe’s deviant theories and practices.”

The L’Arche announcement says: “The inquiry made no suggestion that Jean Vanier had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.”

The Acts 29 and L’Arche crises have one thing in common: behind the various types of abuse was a detailed theological justification. If church for Timmis had to run as a intensive community, Vanier had adopted the sexual theories of his mentor Father Thomas Philippe.

Phillipe it turns out had been found guilty at a trial by the Catholic Church. According to the L’Arche summary report: “As early as the 1950s, a decade before the founding of L’Arche, and contrary to what he publicly stated, Jean Vanier was aware of the key reasons for the canonical trial and condemnation of Father Thomas Philippe by the Catholic Church in 1956. The reasons lay in his theories, which were described as ‘false mysticism’, and the sexual practices that stemmed from them. Jean Vanier described Father Thomas Philippe as his spiritual father.

“The historical research suggests that in the 1950s, Jean Vanier was a member of a small clandestine group which subscribed to and participated in, some of Father Thomas Philippe’s deviant sexual practices, which were founded on so-called ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ beliefs that had been condemned by the Catholic Church. This group was made up of Father Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and a few women.”

“Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain.” – Letter from L’Arche International leaders

The L’Arche inquiry found the women’s claims of abuse by Vanier had a high degree of credibility. “The inquiry team found that the alleged victims, who were not linked to each other and had no knowledge of their respective stories, had each undergone a process of serious personal reflection. Although deeply affected by the events of the past, they were both humble and without any hatred or desire for revenge. They each explained that they had come forward to tell their stories as a way of confronting the past, and to help L’Arche to reflect on the past and to avoid any similar events in the future.”

In a letter to the 154 L’Arche communities around the world, the leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, wrote: “For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain. While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”

That Shakespeare quote – which is part of Marc Antony’s funeral oration for the assassinated Julius Caesar – gives the Roman crowd a lot to think about. A bit like the first chapters of the biblical book of Romans.

Antony is not really saying that the good that Caesar did was buried. And the same will be true of the movement Vanier started.

These words below that I wrote when Vanier died are still true. But now they need to be read through tears for the women abused by Vanier, with a full acknowledgement of their pain.

Vanier wrote of those coming into the community as those seeking to learn to live, in a passage highlighted in our family copy of his book Community and Growth:

‘I am struck by the number of people who want to create or enter community. Their energies are so taken up by this aim that they no longer see reality or those beside them who need their attention and their touch. So their project blinds them. The best way to come into community is to have no project, but to live intensely, with all that means by way of work, openness to others, listening and welcome. Then the passage to life in community comes quite naturally.’

In a different way, the passage to a more intense way of living came naturally to my family. For we have been blessed to have a touch of L’Arche at home. I write these words a few weeks after my daughter wore the Green and Gold at the Abu Dhabi Special Olympics and, with her basketball team mates, won gold.

I have to say that my life has been lived far more prayerfully, intensely, with greater openness to others, and with more learning of welcome that it otherwise would have been without a child with an intellectual disability.”

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