The Tragedy of Jean Vanier’s Behaviour: How to Respond?

Any and all of us that know anything about Jean Vanier cannot but wonder how to absorb the extraordinary news that this man – icon of the faith, spiritual giant — abused and took advantage of women over a twenty year period in like fashion to the priest and mentor who had been so influential in this life.   How do we respond to this news?  I suggest three things. 

First, we can separate this unfortunate behaviour from the quality contributions he made.  If this had been disclosed during his life time, it would have been imperative to remove him from his leadership roles.  But now in retrospect, we can still mourn what has happened but also still value and appreciate the good he did.   I spoke this past week with a colleague and friend, Mark Buchanan, who has done quite a bit of study about and is writing about David, the King of Israel.  And I wondered if David might be for us an example of someone who did horrific things – adultery and murder – and yet for whom we still value, for example, his Psalms.   Again, nothing in this excuses anything that Jean Vanier has done; it is merely that we can still appreciate the positive impact he had through L’Arche. 

Second, we need to affirm the actions of the international directors of the organization – Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney.  To their credit, they brought in an outside firm – a remarkable act of courage and transparency – to conduct an independent review into the conduct of Mr. Vanier.  They could easily have kept this internal and quiet; they did the right thing in going to an external firm that focused on abuse prevention and then when the report came out they were unequivocal in their condemnation of the alleged actions.  They made no excuses; they hid nothing.   I could easily imagine the internal conversations that would have included pressure to keep the lid on this . . for the sake of the ministry, the cause and out of concern that donor support would dry up.   They had an impossible situation but in the midst of it did what needed to be done.   No doubt they are doing some learning.  The fact that Mr. Vanier would not denounce behaviour that had become public about his mentor and spiritual father should have itself set off a conversation of concern for whether Vanier was in any way shape or form excusing such behaviour.   But still, they did the right thing by what they did.

And third, it all comes back to each one of us, within our organizations.  We should be able to answer this question:  to whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my work, including the relationships that I have with those, professionally and otherwise, as part of the work that I do?  No one is above the law; no one is so valued or so important to the organization that they cannot be challenged or asked hard questions.   In my situation, my marriage and the quality of my relationship with my wife is not an incidental concern to the organization as a whole and to the board to whom I report.    And if the board at any point have any reason to be concerned about my relationships – most notably with the women who are colleagues and peers and with whom I have a relationship that is a power dynamic – they, the board or an individual board member, need to have the capacity to raise this concern with the board chair and to know that their concern is being properly addressed. 

The next posting will address the matter of sexual misconduct and organizational culture.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.