Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When pedestals meet sledgehammers

Those who have been following these moodlings for any length of time know that I have long considered Jean Vanier to be one of my heroes. I loved Jean and what he stood for, and grieved when he died last May. But on Saturday, his hero's pedestal met a sledgehammer when I read the report released by the International Federation of L'Arche about Vanier's sexual abuse of 6 women.

As in the cases of many other men of influence who have been revealed for what they are in this "Me Too" era, there are potentially more women out there who are dealing with very deep hurts caused by a man whom many called "a living saint." I now kick myself for calling him that myself -- and thereby falling into the culture of unbridled admiration that allowed him to be above scrutiny for too long.

Clearly, he was nowhere near a living saint. Yes, he started a movement which inspired many good people to create family-like homes for people with disabilities. Adults who had been warehoused in mental institutions for many years blossomed and continue to do so because of L’Arche International, and that I can applaud. I know and love many of them.

Yes, Jean Vanier wrote many wonderful books about love, vulnerability, living in solidarity with the marginalized, the beauty of every human person, and the gifts we receive when we befriend those with disabilities, and his writings can be considered spiritual classics in many cases. Several friends of mine tell me that one of his books changed their lives.

While I recognize the deep truths in so many of Vanier's writings, now they also feel tainted because of his hidden life. It's tempting, as another friend said, to make a bonfire out of his books. I had 42 moodlings that quoted or referred to him, but I have managed to keep most of them simply by removing the quotes and references. And you can rest assured that I won't be using his quotes to support my moodlings in the future.

The problem with Jean Vanier is that he projected the persona of a wise spiritual leader with an intense, charismatic presence. The many accolades he received as such gave him a celebrity status that allowed him to exploit vulnerable women who came to him for help. Who could speak against a living saint? This makes his actions an even graver indecency.

The problem with Jean Vanier is that he was a broken human being who hid his brokenness all too well. It is well documented that people who become sexual abusers have been abused themselves. I know I should feel sorry for the depths of the hurts that turned him into a perpetrator of abuses, but as a woman who has felt my hair stand on end because of unwanted advances from strange men, feeling empathy for men who abuse women is not something I find easy.

The problem with Jean Vanier is that he was unrepentant when confronted by one of his victims before he died. How does one forgive someone who doesn't ask forgiveness? Or who asked for general absolution as his life came to an end, even though he was aware of his greater sins? None of this fits with how he presented himself to the world.

The problem with Jean Vanier, dare I say it? is that he's really not so different from Harvey Weinstein, another man who used his status to take what he wanted from women. Vanier's power and position nearly went unquestioned by our L'Arche family, even when his "spiritual father" was recognized to be an abuser several years ago. For those of us who held Jean Vanier in high esteem, his lies may be the hardest pill to swallow. We did not suspect a thing.

The problem with Jean Vanier is that our very human selves want heroes, and we didn’t see that hero worship too often has us putting imperfect square pegs into saintly round holes. No one is perfect, and too often the people we choose as heroes run the risk of inflated egos that allow them to take advantage of the unsuspecting.

I feel a lot of anger toward the Vatican for suppressing critical information about Jean Vanier's and Pere Thomas Philippe's deviant sexual practices and theologies. Had archival information been made public from the start, it may have prevented over 35 years of abuses. It's yet another sexual scandal involving the Church. How many times must we call on the Vatican to open its vaults and end the protection of criminals?

I laud the courageous women who came forward and told their truth to the investigators appointed by L'Arche International. I applaud the international leaders who believed the women and set the investigation into motion, and who made this report public as quickly as they could once they received it. My prayers are with all the L'Arche communities of people with and without disabilities who share life in 154 communities and 19 projects in 38 countries around the world, (including 6 homes here in Edmonton) as they come to terms with this shocking and devastating news.

I support and pray for healing for all those who have been so deeply hurt by Jean Vanier. After this shock, I will remind myself to look through the projected personae of celebrities and leaders rather than put them on hero's pedestals. I will continue to befriend and connect with people with disabilities and break down barriers between myself and all those who are different from me. And I will carry on, knowing that, though no one should be put on a pedestal, we can all do our part to make the world a better place. Will you join me in doing these things? Have I missed anything?

I sat down and cried when I received the news about Vanier's crimes on Saturday morning. I know too many people who have been hurt by abusers to be silent about this ongoing hurt. But after feeling grief and anger for a good part of the day, I found a beautiful little video in my L'Arche inbox, and laughed with delight to see one of my L'Arche friends as its star! I'll post it tomorrow, as it deserves a space of its own, away from this broken pedestal.

For the moment, I have decided that my shock, anger and sense of betrayal are less important than the beauty, goodness, and truth of L'Arche around the world. I am grieving, but I am determined to hold onto the delight I find in all my L'Arche Edmonton friendships. It's the best anyone can do. This moodling may seem quite harsh, but I have no real words of comfort to offer to anyone, other than to say, keep your pedestals for potted plants, and be kind to and listen to one another. Those who loved Jean Vanier and what he seemingly stood for are all in this pain together.

Peace to all,

1 comment:

Debbie Weismiller said...

Raw,wrenching,heartfelt words that reflect the pain that so many of us are living right now. So grateful to have you as a friend and an inspiration, Maria. Thank you for your meaningful moodlings.