One of my heroes was an abuser — and I’m still not sure what to do about it
Content warning: sexual harassment and violence
It’s a very poignant irony that in the week following International Women’s Day, two news stories should come out highlighting the continued struggle for women to live in peace. The first was the results of a study showing that 97% of women aged 18–24 in the UK had, at some point in their lives, been sexually harassed. The second was the disappearance and death of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, believed to have been kidnapped and murdered by a male member of the London Metropolitan Police while walking home from a friend’s house.
Stories like these are always hard for me to hear, not least because as a man (and particularly as a cisgender straight man), they remind me what a privilege it is to be able to go outside at night without worrying that I’m going to be assaulted. Or to turn down dates and not have to worry about them trying to kill me. As much as I try to honour the women in my life, I know I’ll never properly understand the pain and terror that so many of them feel just by virtue of being female. They also remind me that for all my good intentions, the responsibility for making this world safer for women still lies as much with me as it does with any other man. When women talk about how ‘men’ are responsible for these crimes and how ‘men’ need to do better, I hear my own name in that word too. It’s not that I feel I’m not making an effort, it’s that I know there’s still so far for me to go, so many blind spots for me to face up to.
One of these blind spots, I’ve realised, is not always knowing how to respond when male heroes of mine are found to have used their power to hurt women. And there’s no one who comes to mind more readily here than the late Jean Vanier.
For many of us in the Anglican and Catholic churches, especially those with more progressive leanings like myself, Jean Vanier’s work was invaluable. Both as an author/philosopher and as the founder of the L’Arche charitable organisation, Vanier had a unique way of bringing the Gospel to life, giving us powerful insights into God’s deep, mother-like compassion (what the Hebrew authors of the Old Testament would call racham). Although not all these insights were wholly original to Vanier, few people could articulate them quite as well as he did, and few have done so since. He also arguably did more to advocate for disabled people in the Church than anyone else besides Christ himself — both by reading Vanier’s writings and by watching L’Arche offer hospitality to the handicapped, you got a very real sense that these people came first in the kingdom of God. And in a world where megachurch pastors hung out with A-list celebrities and preached messages of personal prosperity, Vanier’s willingness to spend his life among the poor and needy held up a mirror to the Western Church and reminded it of its true calling.
When Vanier died in May 2019, we gave thanks for what we thought was a life well lived ‒ one that had brought God’s love to those who most needed to hear about it and helped the rest of us grasp it in new ways. For those of us who’d been impacted by it, Jean Vanier’s ministry seemed almost too good to be true. And less than a year later, it turned out that it had been.
Ever since last February, when it emerged that Vanier had sexually abused half a dozen women over a period of 35 years and given them ‘spiritual’ explanations for the abuse, I’ve struggled immensely with what to do with his work. I’ve felt torn between two opposite instincts, both equally strong and persuasive in their own ways. One is to ‘cancel’ Vanier altogether ‒ to burn his books and set my web browser to blacklist anything with his name on it. The other is to keep using his work but try to separate it from Vanier himself — to tell myself that the truths expressed in his writings can still be true and apply to our lives, no matter how reprehensible the deeds of the man expressing them. To me, both these courses of action feel extreme and don’t acknowledge the messy, grey reality of things. I don’t want to deny or minimise the evil of Vanier’s actions, but nor do I want it to completely cancel out all the good things he said and did.
As others have pointed out, Vanier is a tricky case among the long list of sexual predators because of the nature of his work. He can’t be compared to the many men shamed by the #MeToo movement because his work, unlike theirs, purported to be true. It’s easier to boycott Harvey Weinstein’s films or R Kelly’s music because we know they’re not meant to be reflective of reality — they’re usually just there to entertain us rather than to shape our thoughts or behaviour in any meaningful way, so we have less trouble cutting them out of our lives.
Vanier, meanwhile, claimed to be telling us the truth. He told us that God loved all of us without exception, that those with physical and mental impairments were particularly close to God’s heart and that, as such, we ought to treat them with the same kindness and compassion. So when we learned that Vanier wasn’t so worried about kindness and compassion when it came to able-bodied women, many of our deeply-held beliefs ‒ both about God and about ourselves ‒ were called into question.
I’ve read a lot of articles from people who have wrestled with this same dilemma about Vanier and his legacy, and each of them seem to have come to different conclusions. Some have said that the findings of his abuse show how good and evil can and do coexist in each of us; how none of us are free from sin and so we should avoid thinking that anyone else is (especially as the findings came out near the start of Lent, which has historically been a time for reflection and prayer on this theme). That to me feels too charitable, because it suggests it’s somehow natural or inevitable for men to act like that ‒ we’re all sinful, the logic goes, so it could just as easily have been me or my dad or my brother or any of my male friends being abusive. I’m also uncomfortable with any suggestion that Vanier’s sin was no worse or less forgivable than anyone else’s. I find it easier to forgive someone who cuts in front of me in a supermarket checkout queue than someone who secretly abuses vulnerable, trusting women in God’s name and leaves them traumatised for decades, and I’ve got to believe even our most respected clergy do too.
I’d like to be ending this piece with some sort of resolution — a clear decision either to discard Vanier’s work totally or to keep using it but with massive caveats. But the truth is I’m still not at the point where I can make that choice, and might not be for a long time yet. A big part of me is very reluctant to let this man’s work go when it had such a huge impact on my spiritual development, but an equally big part of me is worried about what message it might send to Vanier’s victims, and to victims of sexual abuse more generally, if I didn’t.
Which brings me to my final point — that maybe what’s causing me all this uncertainty is the thought that, as a man, I might not the best person to decide on the best thing to do after all. As I said before, I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to suffer this kind of abuse or live in fear of it, and therefore I’ll never fully understand what suggests an endorsement of abuse and what doesn’t. We men may be the ones responsible for creating a rape-free world, but without women sharing their views and showing us where the problems lie, we won’t have a clue how to go about it.
So to any women reading this, whether you were familiar with Jean Vanier and his work or not: what should I do? What would you do?