March 2020

Jean Vanier abuse reveals patriarchy and pedestals are a toxic combination

For decades Jean Vanier was seen as a ‘spiritual superstar’. On learning of his abusive relationships with women, my response was one of disillusion and overarching sadness, writes Patty Fawkner.

I remember when I met Jean Vanier. I attended a public lecture he gave at Sancta Sophia College within the University of Sydney. I was charmed and inspired by this tall, gently spoken man who engaged his audience while sitting nonchalantly on the edge of the stage. He exuded serenity and goodness. His silent pauses invited his audience into a more reflective space. I knew I was in the presence of an extremely charismatic person, perhaps a living saint.

For decades Vanier was seen as a “spiritual superstar”. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received numerous awards and honours from Church and civil society.

I remember being moved when I heard the news of his death last year.

I remember the moment a few weeks ago when I heard that Vanier had abusive relationships with at least six women over a 30-year period. My response was not one of disbelief – unfortunately, the sexual abuse scandal had inured me to that – but it was one of disillusion and an overarching sadness.

The incredible good Jean Vanier has done is beyond question – the lives he has transformed and the countless people he has inspired. Through L’Arche, his legacy will continue – the global federation of communities he founded is much bigger than Vanier himself. Indeed, L’Arche’s leadership was exemplary in responding swiftly and unequivocally to the accusations against him.

Two things occur to me while reflecting on the revelations about Vanier. 

One, how difficult it seems to be to afford women respect, the same respect that Vanier gave to people with intellectual disabilities. 

Using data from 75 countries, a recent United Nations report, the Gender Social Norms Index, found that progress towards gender equality was ‘‘getting slower and more difficult” in some areas. Further disturbing findings from the report were that 90 per cent of people were biased against women and that 30 per cent of people thought it was justifiable for a man to beat his female partner. This is enough to make you weep.

Why is it that women bear a disproportionate amount of the world’s suffering? Why does it continue to be the case that so many women experience sexual harassment at home, in the workplace and in the Church? I lament and ask the questions but find the only satisfactory answer is that women are harmed and disrespected because patriarchy continues to flourish.

Patriarchy, like coronavirus, invades every aspect of society. Did you know that women are 47 per cent more likely to suffer injuries in car crashes because safety features are designed by men? That 33,000 girls become child brides every day? That for every female film character there are 2.24 men?

Ironically, the week I heard about the abuse by Vanier was the same week at evening prayer we were reading extracts from a Vanier book. He was a prolific writer and a good writer, one of his most popular works being Becoming Human. The title is prescient.

The second thing that occurs to me is that we should never have put Jean Vanier or any other person on a pedestal, thinking that they possess some kind of human perfectability. This is delusional thinking. Perfection is incompatible with humanity. 

Patriarchy and pedestals are a toxic combination. Did the admiration, if not adulation, that Vanier received globally enhance the power differential between him and his followers? Did it cause him to allow a certain entitlement to develop, an entitlement that led him to exercise his male celebrity power over women? Did it cause him to deny the six women the same respect he enjoyed, and to use women for his own sexual gratification? One of the insidious aspects of the abuse seems to be that this charismatic leader invoked spirituality and mysticism to manipulate his victims. No Gospel spirituality or true Christian mysticism here.

The Vanier scandal reminds me that we live into the best of what it means to be human by respecting and honouring the full humanity of every person. We own our humanity when we acknowledge our own sinfulness and not just point to the abject failure of others. As a sinful human being I pray for God’s healing, mercy and forgiveness. As a gifted human being I realise that any good I do is the result of God’s grace working in me. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that I evolve in my humanity by continually “opening up my heart with the plow of the Gospel”. (John Cassian)

May God’s grace working through the L’Arche community bring justice and healing to the six women. May God’s grace enable us to dismantle patriarchy by creating relationships based on mutuality and gender equality, one respectful relationship at a time.


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Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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