When Mother Teresa died in 1997, a common sentiment among her admirers was, “At least Jean Vanier is still on the planet.” Vanier, a Canadian and Catholic theologian, founded L’Arche in 1964 to provide people with disabilities dignified household communities. Vanier’s idea was not to treat such people as the objects of charity, but rather as friends and even teachers, founding communities in which they lived alongside people without disabilities in a spirit of mutual respect and care.

 L’Arche communites are now in over 37 countries. Jean Vanier, who died in 2019, has been regarded as a saint.

That is, until leaders of L’Arche International exposed that Vanier had engaged in “manipulative and emotionally abusive” sexual relationships with six women in France, between 1970 and 2005. Sexual relations were instigated by Vanier, usually in the context of giving spiritual guidance.

At least six abused women are traumatized by Vanier. Also traumatized, although not equally and non-directly, are tens of millions of devotees inspired by Vanier and now disillusioned. As Bill Haley, director of Coracle, emailed about his fallen hero,

His was no ordinary life or ministry, and his was no ordinary sin.  His patterned and conscientious predatory behavior was perpetrated over decades and was in direct opposition to his powerful teachings on community and love that have been inspirational and even formational for so many.  This is not a case of ‘Nobody is perfect.’  Further, he had developed some sort of self-justification–using spirituality–to warrant his behaviors in his own mind.  Further yet, his abuse happened under the guise of spiritual direction, a specific form of ministry that has blessed me, that I love, that I have offered for years, and that Coracle as a ministry offers to many.

This news came out on a Saturday, and I was leading a retreat the following Monday where some of Vanier’s quotes featured prominently in my talks.  On Sunday I (uncharacteristically) posted on my Facebook page “So what am I supposed to do with all my very underlined Vanier books? And all the documents where I quote him? That’s an honest question.”   

At least Mother Teresa did not sexually abuse vulnerable people. We presume.  But in this #MeToo era, sexual predators here-to-before exploiting and abusing with impunity are exposed. Perpetrators are toppling through employment terminations, lawsuits, and imprisonment. Victims are getting a vindication, so of them, and the possibility in some cases of a measure of healing from their scars.

In some cases, perpetrators of these abuses are not the only guilty parties. Too often, powerful organizations deny or cover up abuses in order to save face or continue to profit. Worse, as in the case of priests known to be predators, some have been transferred to other parishes where they continued their predations.

Bill Haley is careful to make a distinction, as he writes on Vanier’s abuse, “One silver lining is the exemplary way that the current leadership of L’Arche quickly and transparently handled the allegations, investigations, and then fully reported the findings.  It is truly refreshing to see a Christian institution value truth and individuals over institutional preservation.”

Scandals Hurt

John Howard Yoder, an Internationally-renowned Mennonnite theologian on Christian pacifism and ecclesiology, wrote,

“Violence is thus meaningless apart from the concept of that which is being violated. That which is violated is the dignity or integrity of some being.” He thus concludes, “As soon as either verbal abuse or bodily coercion moves beyond that border line of loving enhancement of the dignity of persons, we are being violent. The extremes of the two dimensions are of course killing and the radical kind of insult which Jesus in Matthew 5 indicates is just as bad. I believe it is a Christian imperative always to respect the dignity of every person: I must never willingly or knowingly violate that dignity.

In the Latin language the verb ‘to violate’ is the same as the verb ‘to rape’: it refers to the purity or integrity or self-determination of a woman.

Yet Yoder himself was preeminently guilty of what he wrote!  So I was devastated when I first learned of truthful reports about Yoder’s decades of smarmy sexual predation against as many as one hundred women. I had incorporated into my own theology Yoder’s brilliantly persuasive theology on the Church, and nonviolent pacifism. That Yoder had a dark side contrary to his teaching has been devastating. How can his theology be applied today when his own life has been so discredited? And the Mennonite Church and the universities he taught in are not innocent, either, as they went into cover-up mode for their famed churchman and faculty member.

I could write pages of lists of heroes whose perpetration of sexual predation has morally injured the victims as well as betrayed the trust of admirers. Decades ago, a friend of mine was crushed when his televangelist hero, Jimmy Swaggart, was exposed to be consorting with prostitutes (a form of exploitation). Bill Cosby was a role model for families, especially African-Americans, in his role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable in the popular sitcom, The Cosby Show. Cosby is currently in prison for serial raping of women he drugged. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a serial adulterer. John, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy were womanizers. So likely also, Bill Clinton. Pope Francis admits 2% of Catholic priests are pedophiles (abusing children under adolescence), while estimates of overall priests who abuse minors is in the 4 to 11 per cent range.

King David’s rape of Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, Uriah, as detailed in 2 Samuel 11, is illustrative. He is home while his army is fighting elsewhere. He desires the beautiful Bathsheba. He figures, “I am king. My power gives me the right to do what I want.” After he impregnates Bathsheba, he attempts to cover up his adultery, leading finally to sending Uriah to the battlefront to be killed.

Powerful men, heroes, get adulation from their admirers. They exploit this admiration through sexually exploiting admirers. They cover up their adultery (or rapes), through twisted logic or theology, in order to maintain their hero status. When these leaders’ organizations find out, they typically cover up the wrongs in order to avoid a scandal that would harm their mission and finances.

It is especially sad when a child’s hero disappoints. After the Chicago White Sox were corrupted by gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, it is said that a boy confronted implicated baseball star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” the boy pleaded.

How Do We Handle Hero Betrayal?

Betrayal is a violation of trust. It wounds victims, and hurts all of us with our confidence in integrity. 

  1. We need to recognize our own sin of betrayal. Rather than compare ourselves with heinous crimes, we must confess our betrayal to God, people, the creation, and live a life of repentance rather than one of self-justification.
  2. We need to have compassion for victims, seek justice for them, aid in their healing.
  3. Perpetrators and abetting organizations must be held accountable to the law, and moral approbation. Second chances for positions of similar power should not be recognized, at least until a long ladder of repentance involving restitution, and penance is completed, with accountability in all stages.
  4. All people and groups in positions of power need independent, honest, effective accountability partners who meet regularly for honest dialogue and if necessary, discipline.
  5. Remorse over sin is a first step. Judas felt remorse for his betrayal of Jesus, and hung himself. A second step is to seek forgiveness through sincere acknowledgement of the sin, an offer of restitution, and a plead for forgiveness. Judas did not do this second step. King David did take this step, as beautifully stated in Psalm 51. Even so, some consequences of his sin remained.
  6. Extending forgiveness is not easy and should not be forced. Pray for The Holy Spirit to work in the victims’ lives for healing, deliverance from bitterness, and rekindling of trust and hope.
  7.  God uses broken people to do His will. Our praise should be directed to God, not to “heroes.”
  8. We need to refrain from putting people on pedestals from which they can fall. People on these pedestals should do what the Apostle Paul did as he frequently reminded himself and others that it was only and soley God’s pure grace that has called him forth and equipped him.
  9. We can still use the good. David’s crime against Bathsheba and Uriah should not stop us from reading the God-inspired Psalms he penned. We celebrate the justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. was instrumental in leading. The L’Arche communities continue to be wonderful places for disabled people to live, and the vision God planted in Vanier’s mind and through his pen continue to be valid.
  10. The sinfulness of humanity, most notorious in the betrayal of heroes, points us to our need for the One who has borne our sins, forgives us of our iniquities, and imparts The Holy Spirit to us to help us live right.  Jesus is our one true Hero we can trust, admire, and follow.