Secrets, lies and patience: Study explores how leaders snubbed sanctions

4 mins read
L'Arche study
Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, appears in the documentary "Summer in the Forest." For the adults with disabilities who are the core members of L'Arche, news that Vanier sexually abused six women over a 35-year period hit particularly hard. (CNS photo/Abramorama)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — An independent commission just published the results of a two-year study providing shocking details about the background, pseudo-spirituality and “mechanisms of abuse and control” of the late Jean Vanier and his mentor, the late Dominican Father Thomas Philippe.

They co-founded L’Arche in 1964, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. Father Philippe and his brother Dominican Father Marie-Dominique Philippe also individually founded communities and were found guilty by the Vatican in 1956 and 1957 respectively for serious abuses and transgressions.

It was only after Vanier died in 2019 that accusations against him became public and triggered a series of investigations whose findings turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg.

L’Arche International then mandated a wider and more in-depth study into Vanier’s life, the history of L’Arche, his relationship with the Philippe brothers, and how a warped spirituality of love and tenderness justified his own ritualized and mystical-erotic abuse of dozens of adult women.

The Dominicans of the Province of France and the Brothers of Saint-Jean also have set up study commissions to investigate Father Thomas and Father Marie-Dominique, respectively. The 900-page study and its synthesis commissioned by L’Arche were published online Jan. 30 at

Its general finding: A secret mystical-sexual abusive cult-like “nucleus” of members was formed within Father Thomas’ L’Eau Vive community, which Vanier joined in 1950 and led after the priest left in 1952 when an investigation by the Holy Office in Rome, today’s Dicastery of the Doctrine for the Faith, opened its investigation concerning serious allegations. The priest was found guilty and sanctioned “for serious offenses of a pseudo-mystical nature” in 1956, the office’s archives said.

The core members were mandated to disband and keep away from the priest, especially Vanier, who, according to the Holy Office, displayed a “total absence of judgment” and was the “most fanatical disciple” of Father Thomas.

Vanier would need “serious proof of detoxification” from his mentor and real formation at a seminary if he were to ever get permission to pursue his desire to become a priest, it added. That permission was never granted.

However, the core members secretly communicated and met over the years, waiting patiently until Father Thomas was allowed back into France where they reunited and created a new community, called L’Arche, in 1964. Several other communities founded and led by people who had been spiritually guided or influenced by Father Thomas also were known for sexual abuse, the study found.

To read through the study, a pattern seen in other recent cases emerges: Some charismatic personalities, guilty of transgressions and sanctioned by church authorities, were still able to publicly pursue new projects and craft convincing reputations of being virtuous, even holy, leaders.

While the study only looks at “the joint itineraries” of Father Thomas and Vanier from 1950 to 2019, it highlights the “incredible persistence of a perverse nucleus” of people whose beliefs and practices were able to survive and spread for decades.

This raises questions, it said, such as: “How could such a group, although unmasked in the mid-1950s, have been able to maintain itself until the 2010s, over some 80 years?” How did Vanier and others not be seen as “sectarian” by L’Arche and the wider public? And how did they evade multiple church authorities that investigated their deviancies in “the L’Eau Vive affair,” specifically, the Diocese of Paris, the leaders of the Dominicans and of the Carmelites and the Holy Office?

Similar questions are often asked when other popular or revered church figures are found to have been silently sanctioned for abuses, allowing them to continue receiving prestige, praise and positions that may polish their image, intimidate victims from coming forward, and provide new opportunities to take advantage of trusting, admiring followers.

The study provided a number of answers as to why sanctions and measures against Vanier and Father Thomas failed even as the Holy Office was well aware of their “fanaticism”:

— The core members of the disbanded L’Eau Vive were able to meet despite the sanctions, helping them support “their delusional collective beliefs,” fuel a feeling of persecution and strengthen their ties. Measures demanding isolation for individuals are difficult to maintain because those assigned to keep watch “are not prison guards or psychiatric nurses.”

— The families of the core members enjoyed high social status, offering them “both financial well-being and ‘society,'” that is, influential networks and connections that allowed them to oppose detractors and mobilize resources needed to establish and grow a successful venture, in this case, L’Arche.

— A “culture of secrecy and lies” helped explain and rewrite the past.

— Despite having a tenacious and diligent investigator at the Holy Office handling the accusations, Rome “did not have the necessary means to fight, on the human and legal level, in the long term. … Foiling their long-term stratagems seems more like a counterintelligence service than a dicastery of the Roman Curia.”

— An “unbalanced practice of mercy, disrepute for canon law” allowed Father Thomas to start over back in France, far from “the gaze of the Holy Office” and communication between the various levels and authorities in the church also show “insufficiencies.”

— Successive provincials of the Dominicans believed their priest was a “repentant penitent” and respected his work with the “poor and disabled.”

The study concludes, “We must emphasize that the nondisclosure of the exact causes of (Father Thomas) Philippe’s conviction is precisely what helped maintain his reputation for holiness and rewrite history as he saw fit.”

“Faced with his duplicity and the culture of secrecy, with which he and his insiders have surrounded themselves, it has now become clear that bringing the facts to light is an essential condition for putting an end to it,” the study said.

One final lesson, the study said, was how the “sectarian nucleus” did not develop far beyond its small core inside of L’Arche. This “astonishing” difference compared to the multiple abusers discovered in the communities founded by the Philippe brothers was due to those communities being more insulated and “closed.”

L’Arche’s doors, instead, were wide open to “a large number of people who were completely foreign to” the pseudo-mystical inner circle. The outside medical, social and government institutions, public donors, and other partners imposed clear frameworks and constraints to sectarian activity, the study said.

“These multiple brakes finally explain the observation of the apparent exhaustion of this sectarian nucleus in L’Arche. Vanier and (Father) Philippe are dead. Their influence has waned considerably” and those “suspected of still adhering to the mystical-sexual beliefs of (Father) Philippe, have a weak capacity for influence.”

“The resolution of the international leaders of L’Arche to request a multidisciplinary commission to study these facts is a final sign that reflects the progress of this process” of collectively becoming free of past falsehoods, it said.

“The commission worked with the desire to establish the facts and try to understand the mechanisms at work, but also with the conviction that their exposure in full light is the essential condition for their extinction,” it concluded.

Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service has reported from the Vatican since the founding of its Rome bureau in 1950.