Vanier’s Legacy

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum dicendum est – speak nothing but good of the dead, first attributed to Chilon of Sparta in Greek, we would not take as a universal precept, but it holds in the main. We rightly condemn the heinous deeds of such tyrants as Diocletian, Hitler and Stalin, but for the more secret malfeasance of others who have gone before us, we tend to reserve a silence, not least since the dead can no longer defend themselves.

Jean Vanier, a celibate (that is, unmarried) layman – a bachelor, if you will – dedicated his life to helping the disadvantaged, founding L’Arche International in 1964, which has done untold good for the disabled, even those gravely so, offering them a productive, fruitful life in community, while also fostering virtue in those who care for these ‘core members’.

I wrote of Dr. Vanier – he held a Ph.D. in philosophy – a few years ago, after he made some unfortunate comments on euthanasia; he was in his 80’s, and goaded on by a CBC reporter. So perhaps he had his blind spots. I hope he was just a bit confused, even if his words – weighty with his spiritual authority, more on which in a moment – needed clarification.

It is in this light that we should take the accusations made against him: Sad and tragic, if true, and we should have compassion for the women to whom any wrong was done. If the apparently mighty such as Vanier have fallen – and what a fall it seems – whom can any of us trust?

Since Mr. Vanier cannot defend himself, and I’m not much of one for ambiguity, nor even less for political correctness, here at least are some questions:

The first and most obvious one is, why did they wait until he was dead before revealing all this? After all, whatever was done, seems to have been done between 1975 and 2005.

Second, we should wait to learn precisely what he was accused of, and what evidence there be, before we cast him irrevocably into the outer darkness.

From whatever initial reports I have read, it is claimed that Vanier used his aforementioned ‘spiritual authority’ to manipulate women into some kind of sexual relationship. We should be clear that, if true, this was gravely sinful, imprudent and certainly a misuse of his role, but it was not illegal. Jean Vanier was not a priest, nor in some kind of consecrated or religious life, so there was no strict canonical irregularity either. I don’t mean to palliate whatever evil was done, but we should be clear that, although the women may all have been vulnerable and manipulated and in some kind of power imbalance, many relationships are so, and they were all adults. And we should not discount the early, ongoing and deleterious influence of Vanier’s mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, who died in 1993, was indeed creditably charged with insidious sexual abuse, hidden under the cloak of compassion. He was duly censured by the Church.

Yet, with all that so far in the past, why the revelations now, with the man scarcely a year in his grave?

Then again, that may all be moot, for even a whisper of such accusations in our current #MeToo climate, is already to be tried, convicted and sentenced. Buildings and schools are now considering scrubbing his name, his memory besmirched, done, kapoot.

One wonders. People have secrets, all those closeted skeletons, and in the end only God can resolve all that Man has done and not done in this vale of tears.

There is no longer any earthly court for Jean Vanier, who has gone before that same God, and received the only judgement which in the end really matters. We may hope that, while seeking justice for those he may have wronged, whatever sins he did commit – and none of us is free of such – are outweighed by all the good he left behind.