The Whitewashing of Spiritual Leaders – Is Vanier Like Weinstein?

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation

Rosie Haarper

It is old news now. As it broke there was a surprising amount of interest in the media about the finding that Jean Vanier was a serial abuser. Multiple articles in secular and religious press, Thought for the Day on R4, thousands of words were written as people processed the information. Vanier was the founder of L’Arche an international federation of communities for people with disabilities and those whom work with them. He was, for many, a spiritual giant.

We heard about Jean Vanier on February 22nd and two days later Harvey Weinstein was convicted of two counts of sexual assault.

Vanier abused at least 6 women over a period of 35 years. Weinstein also abused women, eighty women lodged complaints, over a period of at least 30 years. Vanier abused through spiritual and emotional power, gaining control over women via their faith. Weinstein abused his power as the most influential producer in Hollywood, controlling women’s career and reputation.

On the surface these are not dramatically different cases. Surely both men were abusive b**tards?

However the stories didn’t unfold that way.

There was zero compassion or understanding for Weinstein. Identified in the red-hot period of the ‘#MeToo’ movement he has come to represent the archetypal abusive male. The women who had been abused took centre stage and were praised for their courage in disclosing what happened and pursuing it to the end. He is now in jail with a 29 year sentence which may well be extended after the California case is concluded.

The response to Vanier was different. Firstly, he is dead. Such was his power that those he abused didn’t succeed, if indeed they tried, to get a criminal case underway. Secondly the response, at least in the religious press has been very much about the pain of the people who were not the primary victims. The headline in The Tablet ‘The truth that breaks your heart.’

Giles Fraser: ‘A few days ago, the l’Arche community published a report, the result of an internal inquiry, in which Jean Vanier was exposed as a sexual predator. And I have been reeling from it ever since. The sense of disappointment is crushing. I don’t want to write about it. I’m not sure how to write about it. I feel I have to write about it.’

Revd Dr Sam Wells: “I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Jean Vanier was one of them. Near the top of the list. It turns out that while he was doing so many beautiful and true things, he was also doing many deeply ugly and profoundly shameful things.” Sam goes on to be very realistic about the abuse and doesn’t do a white wash job at all – his is an excellent article, but even he manages to put his own personal hero worship into the mix.

The survivor’s voices are not heard.

There may be many quite understandable reasons for this, but it immediately reminded me of the many, many years when survivors were talked about but never heard in the CofE.

The other strand of reaction is about L’Arche. There is rightly a separation between Vanier and the work of the communities, but there is also a primary concern for its reputation and indeed its very survival. This again is highly reminiscent of the CofE’s response to abuse cases within its own institution.

For me the image that encapsulates this is the weeping apology. The survivor has every right to weep, but when the apology comes with tears it deflects attention and even sympathy from the truly needy person onto the apologist and the institution.

How about we don’t mess around with all this subtle spiritual stuff at all? All the waffle about how we are all fallen, and about how much good even a sinner can do when blessed by God. How about it we have the courage to treat Weinstein and Vanier the same?

They are both creepy abusive b**tards who have done grave personal damage to people who trusted them. We may even at some level be able to forgive them although that surely is the business of their victims, but lets not pretend that a holy abuser is any less gross than an unholy one.

I’m not convinced that after all this time we ‘get’ safeguarding.

We still resist truly independent scrutiny. L’Arche, to their credit, did not mark their own homework . We still talk about survivors far more than we talk with them. We still make them feel as if they are the enemy when they turn to the Church for help. We still moan and groan about the training we have to do.

Instead of calling safeguarding ‘the bane of my life’ as one bishop reportedly did, lets strain every nerve and sinew to ensure that we never again have to talk about the scale of abuse that either Weinstein or Vanier were able to perpetrate.

WATCH HERE – Canon Rosie Harper gave a memorable speech on Safeguarding at General Synod in February 2020, which received sustained applause.

This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Spiritual Abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Whitewashing of Spiritual Leaders – Is Vanier Like Weinstein?

  1. MariHoward says:

    Good article, and to the point: “survivors” have had the task of pulling together their lives alone and unsupported by the institutions which introduced them to the abuser, and then protected him (usually him, but if we include nuns and schoolteachers, and other kinds of abuse such as emotional & bullying (said to be as bad or worse esp. for children in terms of long lasting effects), also her). Survivors may become tough and strong, they have to. Once they understand this was abuse, they fight to become their own free self. Abusers are weak. Abusers have been protected. Survivors have been thrown into the darkness. Especially when they have been the ones to take the facts of the abuse to some high-up person in the organisation, and then not been believed, or not been supported, or not been given the credit for warning about what they thought might happen to someone else – and seen the abuser removed from office and handed over to justice.

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  2. Richard Martin says:

    Could the difference be that the victims of Vanier could possibility be disabled with no public voice whereas Weinstein’s are good looking and photogenic with access to the media.

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  3. Marie says:

    Speaking as a disabled Anglican, I do, unapologetically, want to see L’Arche survive in some form, because it is one of the few places in our society which even tries to see disabled people, and especially people with cognitive and developmental disabilities, as fully human. The institutional settings people in this demographic live in are often physically, emotionally and sexually abusive, yet the mainstream anti-sexual assault and feminist movements utterly ignore disabled people and their specific needs in this area, and the church continues to behave as if disabled Christians just don’t exist. What made (and makes) the L’Arche model valuable from a disability rights perspective is the way in which it focused on the inherent value of, and the need to give autonomy to, people regardless of what kind of mind or body they live in. None of which is to say that L’Arche itself is the best embodiment of those ideals (I’d prefer to see more people living in the community), or that it is above proper concern for safeguarding – scrutiny should rightly increase on that point. However, it concerns me to see the conversation about L’Arche’s future taking place between non disabled commentators, without reference to the disabled people who live in those communities and their needs – for safety, for freedom from abuse and discrimination, and for autonomy as human beings made in the image of God.

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