The Time for Soft Responses to Scandal is Over

Photo of Jean Vanier
Photo by Kotukaran, cropped by Gabriel Sozzi / CC BY-SA (

The Time for Soft Responses to Scandal is Over


When I saw the news on Saturday morning I was stunned. Jean Vanier? THE Jean Vanier had sexually abused multiple women?

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an apostolate that cares for so many people with disabilities.

Jean Vanier, the spiritual writer who has influenced so many Catholics and people in general.

Jean Vanier, the guy who was sometimes likened to Mother Teresa. THAT Jean Vanier?

I texted the article to a friend and he responded: “I thought that man was a saint.”

So did I. In fact if last week I were to try to come up with someone of recent memory who might be least likely to ever be found guilty of such sins, I may have come up with Jean Vanier.

The time of revelations of scandals in the Church continues. There is little that can surprise anymore. After this one, is there anything that can surprise?

After I read the article I posted on my Facebook wall:

"We live in a period where so many of the big Catholic leaders turn out to have lived a duplicitous life. Eventually it all comes to light and eviscerates trust in the Church. We must look to Jesus in moments like this. There are real saints, but we’re learning how many get away with playing the role. Wheat and chaff."

One of my friends took exception to my words. He said that it was not the time for “wheat and chaff” rhetoric. It was uncharitable. It was not “nuanced," and thus not helpful. Another friend took umbrage with my putting myself in the place of his judge. (I am not linking the post, as I don’t want anyone to feel like I am “dunking” on them with an article. But I thought that the issue merited a longer response).

I want to clarify my meaning in the wheat and chaff comment, and I want to say why I think we need to stop worrying about nuance when it comes to abusers.

What I meant to reference in the wheat comment was actually wheat and weeds (or tares, or however it’s translated in your Bible), from Matthew 13:24-30, not the wheat and chaff reference from Matthew 3 (though I have not corrected it in the post, as both apply).

The meaning I intended was that weeds can grow up along side wheat in a way which is not easily distinguishable on the outside, and God has allowed it so. In other words, what appears to be holy may not be. It was not to say that I claim knowledge of Vanier’s salvation; it was to caution against ascribing holiness to a person based on appearance. In Vanier’s case, can anyone argue now that he was holy?

Is that too strong a statement? Should these parables never be referenced when it comes to Catholic leaders?

Vanier, under the guise spiritual counselling, seduced women, telling them that it was ok because it was therapy. He spiritualized the abuse by sacrilegiously quoting Scripture (“it is not I, but God who lives in me”). He assuring another, who protested that it was a sin: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.” (By “Mary” he apparently meant Mary Magdalene)

If you can’t use “wheat and chaff rhetoric” in this case, you can’t use it at all. I would also use rhetoric like “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” while we are at it.

On the second point, why we should stop worrying about “nuance,” or delicacy, when it comes to sexual scandal in the Church, I can answer in one word:


The victims deserve to know that it is them we stand with unambiguously, not their perpetrator. I honestly don’t see how anyone can speak at this moment about what Vanier’s redeeming qualities were. He lied for 30 years! He lied about his mentor, who taught him his messed up “mystical” sexual abuse therapy, and who himself abused at least 15 women. I am guessing he lied when a woman spoke about their relationship 2014 and he characterized it as “consensual.”

Every lie is a slap in the face of the victims, who should have been heard long ago. If recent history is any indicator, some were probably were heard by someone and ignored.

And I believe (though I have not been in the position of someone sexually abused by a Catholic leader), that every call for gentleness, delicacy and “nuance" when speaking of their abuser would also feel like a slap in the face.  

If further reasons were needed, we should think of those secondary victims, who were not abused sexually but whose faith may be harmed by the scandal.

I was part of an ecclesial movement where the founder was found guilty of sexually abusing children. Like Vanier, he held a high position in the Church, holding advisory offices in the Vatican, etc. His sins, and the lies about them, harmed the faith of many. People left their vows of consecration in the aftermath. I fear that some may have left the Church altogether.

These people, whose faith is in danger, should know that the Church stands for them. They should know that all the members of the Church vow not to turn a blind eye when something like this happens again. For them to know this, we should be blunt, not delicate when it comes to decrying the evil committed.

Too many people have tried to be "sensitive" in the face of evil committed by others. I think of the harrowing opening scene of the movie Spotlight, where a mother goes to see her child in a police interview room. The child has apparently been abused sexually by a priest, seen sitting distraught in another room. A bishop comes in to run defence, meeting with the family and asking:

“Can you find it in your heart to forgive him?”

There is no justice for the victim in this moment, and his abuser moves on, probably to abuse again. The bishops who moved around serial abusers may have internally justified it by the good the priests may have done in their ministry besides the abuse. They probably thought they were taking a nuanced position, making distinctions about the good they did in spite of the bad. 

We now know that this kind of response was an epic failure, a betrayal of those abused. We are still reaping the putrid whirlwind. 

I long for the day when people say, “That could never happen in the Church today.”

We aren’t there yet, and maybe we can talk more about delicacy toward perpetrators when we are.


While still thinking about this, I saw the news that Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape by a jury. Like Vanier, Weinstien was also revealed to have abused many women. He also got away with it for a very long time, holding a privileged place in Hollywood as scores of actors thanked him for making their careers (Meryl Streep referred to him in an acceptance speech as “God”). In a secular sense, Weinstein, producer of so many award winning films, bore a lot of fruit.

Is anyone ready to stand up and urge delicacy when it comes to decrying the crimes of this man? Would anyone say, “He helped a lot of women, too. We must take his whole life’s work into account, not just the rapes.”  Or, “Let’s not paint things in just black and white. People are complicated, and we all have sin in us.”

Of course not. But if we won’t do it for Weinstein, why would we for Vanier?

Weinstein is a scoundrel, a manipulative narcissist and an abuser, and he belongs in jail. I don’t feel bad for saying that. Vanier, despite his good works, committed abuse on multiple women and for this he deserves our scorn. He has passed on, and God is his judge. May he show him mercy.

Maybe you’ll protest the comparison saying that Vanier’s crimes pale in comparison to Weinstein, and you’re probably right. But the passage that comes to mind is:

“Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” (Luke 12:48b)

Vanier’s influence in the Church is huge, and if you’ve been touched by his work, you may feel indebted to him and perhaps even a duty to defend him. Or maybe you feel that by defending him, you are defending the people with disabilities that L’Arche ministers to. I am not trying to shame you for feeling that way, if that is your inclination.

But for the reasons I’ve stated above, I believe that the time for soft responses to perpetrators of sexual abuse is long past. From now on, let’s unambiguously and always stand solely with the victims.  

Related: When Looking at Recent Scandals, (Don't) Close Your Eyes

I long for the day when people say, “That could never happen in the Church today.” — Josh Canning

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