L’Arche Edmonton focuses on supporting families, staff in wake of Vanier abuse report

25 February 2020

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Shock. Anger. Sadness. Immeasurable grief.

L’Arche Edmonton and its supporters say they are feeling all of those emotions and more in the wake of revelations that Jean Vanier, the founder of the international community for people with intellectual disabilities, abused at least six women.

The image of a man once idolized as a living saint has been shattered, and now awards given to him are being revoked and the Vanier name on public institutions is being called into question.

“Everyone is reeling from this. People are devastated. People are shocked. People are angry. People are disappointed. People are everything, above and beyond,” said Pat Desnoyers, executive director of L’Arche Edmonton.

“We have a situation of someone who is idolized by more than people in L’Arche, and that whole image has been smashed. And I don’t even know how to put words on it … We’re grieving this image that we had and we don’t know where to move to, for sure. Clearly, the image we had is no longer there.”

Jean Vanier

Nevertheless, local L’Arche leaders say the focus is on supporting staff and families and that their mission will continue in spite of the tarnished image of its founder.

“This is not about L’Arche,” Desnoyers said. “It is about Jean Vanier.”

An independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche International found that Vanier had abused six women in the context of providing them spiritual direction. None of the women had disabilities.

Vanier died in May 2019 at the age of 90. Until the late 1990s, Vanier oversaw the entire L’Arche organization, which since the 1960s grew into 154 communities and more than 10,000 members, including 29 Canadian communities and two projects in nine provinces.

The son of a Canadian governor-general, Vanier wrote 30 books, was feted with awards and honours from governments around the globe, and became a sought-after speaker. He was a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity.

The investigation began as an inquiry into Vanier’s link to Rev. Thomas Philippe, an abusive Dominican priest sanctioned by Church authorities in 1956, whom Vanier described as his “spiritual mentor.”

The alleged acts with Vanier took place in Trosly-Breuil, France, where L’Arche was founded in 1964 and where Father Philippe and Vanier lived almost permanently until their deaths. Vanier denied in 2015 and 2016 that he had any knowledge of Philippe’s abusive behaviour.

“It was gut-wrenching. I was in a state of shock,” said Carmel Hunt, who has been a volunteer, assistant and team leader with L’Arche Edmonton since emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1987. “I felt angry as I read the report, at Jean Vanier and the fabric of lies.

Carmel Hunt

“It felt like a betrayal. My life changed because of L’Arche. I came here as a different person. I came because of one of his books,” Hunt said. “I also felt a tremendous amount of admiration for the women who came forward and that they shared their stories, and for L’Arche International that the leadership took the initiative and did the investigation. This is in keeping with the values of respect and dignity.”

L’Arche community leaders worldwide were notified that the inquiry’s report was coming, as well as its main findings, to prepare for meetings with staff and families. The report was under a media embargo until Feb. 25. However, once an Irish newspaper broke that embargo, other media followed suit.

L’Arche Edmonton then began to inform families and staff over the weekend. L’Arche Edmonton runs a day program and six homes for 24 residents with disabilities and 20 staff.

“Our focus is the care of our community. They felt like this was a death. They felt loss … Once we get over the shock, the grief, the trauma of this, it really calls to look at who we are today and grow in our mission today,” Desnoyers said. “We are not Jean Vanier. We are L’Arche. While Jean was hugely a part of our story and our founding, he is not who we are today. That is critical.”

Pat Desnoyers

Desnoyers said at this point she’s not worried that families will have second thoughts about L’Arche, adding that many had reached out to tell her they stand by the organization. She invited any that do have concerns to contact her.

“We are a healthy community here in L’Arche Edmonton, and to me it only calls us to get healthier and healthier and getting clear about what our mission and identity is right here on the ground.”

In the wake of the scandal, the Vanier name is being called into question.

On Feb. 23, the University of Notre Dame revoked awards given to Vanier, including one for worldwide humanitarian service.

Locally, the Elk Island Catholic School Division says it will consider renaming Jean Vanier Catholic School, its kindergarten-to-Grade 4 school in Sherwood Park, which has 248 students and opened in 1972.

“We have received questions about a possible name change because of the revelations. This is something that will be considered; however, our focus today is on supporting those most affected by these revelations,” the school division said in a statement.

EICS Media Statement Feb 24.

“EICS will engage the larger EICS school community and partners as we move forward together as a faith community through this challenging time.”

Elk Island Catholic School Division says it will consider renaming Jean Vanier Catholic School in Sherwood Park.

Elana Bryks, a mother of kids who attend Jean Vanier School, has mixed feelings about Vanier the man.

“It’s a little bit disheartening and disappointing that this is now coming out, however I do feel like there is value in honoring Vanier’s good works,” said Bryks, who also teaches at Monsignor William Irwin Elementary School in Edmonton.

“There’s going to be a need for a balanced approach on how we move forward on this. I feel like it’s important for these conversations to happen now and for our youth to understand that this is something in history and we can’t ignore it.”

Elana Bryks

Bryks said she’s proud of her school and its community. But keeping the Vanier name? She’s not sure.

“Fifty per cent of our population is women. It’s tricky. There are going to be a lot of conversations that are going to need to happen and a lot of consultation with community groups. But as a parent, I know that we need to not ignore and hide things. What’s the best way to move forward from it? I don’t know.”

For now, Elk Island Catholic Schools said the focus is on everyone impacted by the revelations.

“Our thoughts are with those individuals that have come forward and everyone that may be impacted,” the division stated.

“We hold them in our prayers as they journey through their pain and hope that all will soon find peace and comfort during this very difficult time.”

Since 2015, the Archdiocese of Edmonton has had a policy on the naming of schools, focusing on saints, the mystery of Christ, and founders of Catholic education. Under the policy, three names selected by the local school board are submitted to the Archbishop for final approval.

Canada’s Catholic bishops have also weighed in, calling the results of the L’Arche investigation “shocking” and adding the “news is all the more difficult and incomprehensible” because of Vanier’s influence on how people with intellectual and physical disabilities are treated.

“His writings have had a positive influence on people’s lives within many different cultures and languages. Nonetheless, any harm that was done cannot be excused,” the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.

“Victims of abuse suffer unspeakable harm and long-term consequences. The message of the Bishops of Canada to all victims-survivors is that abuse is an appalling manipulation of trust and is always to be condemned. In any form, it is unacceptable.”

L’Arche International has set up an additional centralized reporting procedure for any further information that people may wish to report. This information will be received by a task force composed of people outside of L’Arche.

-With files from Catholic News Service