MICHAEL MULLINS. Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power

Jean Vanier was the revered founder of the international network of L’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. It was revealed at the weekend that he sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005. Treating leaders like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

Like many, I was saddened and disillusioned to hear reports last weekend that Jean Vanier had psychologically manipulated and sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005.

Vanier was a French Canadian philosopher who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. He died last May at the age of 90.

I remember visiting the L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra in 1985. I returned in 1990 to record interviews for an ABC radio documentary that won a Human Rights Commission media award later that year.

Vanier’s teaching, which was lived out in the communities, seemed to have particular resonance for me. It was that difference and diversity was to be celebrated and not shunned.

Vanier’s fall from grace does not change anything about my appreciation of his message. Instead it has me reflecting on the very human practice of idolising people whose values we like, and how our idolisation can set them on a path towards the destruction of themselves and others, in addition to bringing discredit to their message.

The US Jesuit writer James Martin said after Vanier’s death that ‘[Vanier] and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics’. In using the word avatar, Martin was referring not to the icons used to identify us in social media but rather the incarnation of gods in Hindu mythology.

Treating people like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

In his case, I think we have to ask why the loyal deputies did not see and report the signs that he was abusing the six women.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the deputies. I suspect we would act in the same way if we were in the shoes of the deputies because our religious and celebrity cultures ordain certain people and treat them with deference.

‘Ordain’ in this sense does not necessarily refer to religious priesthood, and sexually-abusing celebrities such as Michael Jackson are every bit as ‘ordained’ as Catholic priests who abuse their power and sexually exploit their subjects.

I think that we have to admit we are party to abuse of the power that comes with ordination if we don’t call it out when we suspect it. We are doing both the perpetrator and victim a profound disservice, not to mention the message that has drawn us in the first place.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.


Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

For questions regarding our comment system please click here.
(Please note that we are unable to post comments on your behalf.)

11 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power

  1. Avatar Fosco Ruzzene says:

    Back in the late 70’s, in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when the Big Idea that dividing ourselves into good and bad people was more or less useless, and that we had to solve our problems as best we can, the then prison psychiatrist was interviewed on radio. She was running rehabilitation programs for convicted sex offenders. The aim of the programs was to reduce re-offending. This was best for community safety and best for the offenders. The programs were framed around the theories of Freud. The psychiatrist made a passing comment that Catholics, as a proportion of the population, over-represented as sex offenders. After the interview Archbishop Frank Little phoned her expressing his objection, and demanding a retraction. The psychiatrist responded that the Church should instead change its teachings on sexuality.
    We now know that at the time the Archbishop was secretly moving sex offending priests from parish to parish. Frank Little on retirement was replaced by George Pell.
    Recently, a convicted pedophile priest said that he went to weekly confession for thirty years: nothing changed!
    That’s the Big Lie of Vatican-ism. Behind the brainwashing gobbledygook doctrines, the pantomime dress up rituals and claims of ontological superiority of the priest caste there is ignorance. My guess is that the confessing priest was told to pray more fervently to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to sin no more.
    Can we really go on believing that kneeling in a cupboard and parroting some ritual words will bring healing to our inner turbulence because the other person claims divine connection?
    Father Tucker, founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, went to his Anglican Bishop with a plan to set up a community of men who would take vows of celibacy to make a total a commitment to God. He was told it was too idealistic. This was wise practical advice – as was the recommendation of the Royal Commission. There was expectation the Pope Francis was moving in this direction. We now know he was lying.
    The old men of the Vatican are not going to change. Better moving operations to developing societies where the average population has a few years of primary school education.
    We have now learnt that an icon of Catholicism was after all a man with his own difficulties. But maybe we too are part of the problem. Maybe we should stop believing in saints and Holy Fathers. Maybe that is an infantilia on our part.

  2. Avatar Ed Campion says:

    Acton was a more subtle thinker than you report; what he actually wrote was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”.

  3. Avatar William Murphy says:

    Mr Mullins,

    Surely the evidence shows that it was being a cult leader which lead to Vanier being treated as a God. And it was not the excessive public adulation which drove him off the rails – it was the bizarre spiritual theories developed by his long time spiritual mentor Father Thomas Philippe, his spiritual mentor for years before l’Arche started. Vanier was thoroughly corrupted before L’Arche started; he secretly helped Thomas continue to run L’Eau Vive long after the Vatican had banished Thomas from all contact with Vanier and the women of L’Eau Vive.

    ” In September 1950, aged 22, Vanier arrived at L’Eau Vive, a centre created by Pere Thomas as a “school of wisdom”.”


    As one of the women described Thomas’ mumbo-jumbo, which Vanier imitated: it is plain that Thomas and Vanier had elevated themselves to God-like status for sexual purposes.


    “Father Philippe’s ingenuity was recorded for posterity by his order in the 1950s….. “Philippe “asked me, most insistently, to bind myself to him by an act of absolute faith in this mission and in himself. I replied that I could only make an act of faith in God alone, and trust in creatures only insofar as they were God’s instrument for me.… He explained to me … that he was an instrument of God, and therefore at present and directly moved by God.… He said that I lacked strength, that I had to get used to it gradually, that all this was a great honour to our Lord and to the Blessed Virgin, because the sexual organs were the symbol of the greatest love, much more than the Sacred Heart.””

    And the very title “L’Eau Vive”? “Living Water” is Gnostic code for semen.


    • Avatar Michael Furtado says:

      The crux of Mullen’s point lies in the association he draws between Vanier and Mother Teresa. I know of Vanier’s worldwide impact predominantly from the extraordinary ABC RN program he did on l’Arche. However, I grew up in a Calcutta in which Mother Teresa was treated like a god. Her early mission, in leaving the Loreto Congregation and founding the Missionaries of Charity, would have proceeded in a very different direction had she challenged the basis upon which the Loreto Sisters at the time fitted into an evangelical structure, long since reformed, that was the legacy of imperial British rule. Instead, her focus on leaving that intact evidently satisfied what Mick Mullins rightly calls the human need to venerate, without actually challenging the structures that create poverty and alienation. Much Hindu religiosity, like many aspects of Catholic religious culture, is in my view despairingly adept at this kind of mistargeted veneration.

  4. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    I think these things argue for multiple channels of authority and independent monitoring.

    Less hierarchy = less violence, I think.

  5. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    Thank you,
    A wonderful essay.The perils of the abuse of power held by those in charge are all to obvious, whether it be a Hollywood Director or a Catholic Priest. I remember many years ago, teaching in a congregational school with two fellow teachers, one a Brother the other an ex religious . I thought I knew them well. Decades later, long after I had retired from “the job”, I rudely discovered they had both abused children under their care. I never remotely suspected them. How can we know?

  6. Good appraisal, Mick. As we saw in Spotlight abuse and its coverup are actually a social thing that is permitted and prolonged by cultures that attract the most unusual set of conspirators – hard (mostly) men, corrupt police, office holders intent on keeping office, the naive who just don’t listen to victims, legal processes that always find against claimants. Sad and sorry but common. About Vanier, you tell a story we can all understand and have some experience of.Thanks.

    • Avatar Wayne McMillan says:

      Both of you are so right, still I am shocked by this revelation. Lord Acton’s dictum still applies. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    • Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Appeals to ‘Spotlight’ and a broadening of the class of ‘conspirators’ – I’d say: ‘colluders’ – and a neat summing-up: ‘Sad and sorry but common’ is exactly the way sexual abuse /power /corruption have succeeded throughout the ages.
      If these are ‘actually a social thing’ (Means?) then the RC Church is less culpable. Sad but sorry; or, in Hart-speak: Better Late Than Never.
      This is Muddled Thinking (? deliberate propaganda?). It deserves to be called-out.

  7. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    L’Arche was a ‘non-government organization’ – having the same qualities that have been identified as other ‘NGOs’ which are, at long last, being ‘outed’ and called to account for dodgy practices of all sorts of types. Key words: called to account.
    No Government or any other donor ought expend public monies on organizations which are, by definition, Un-accountable. All organizations receiving monies from the public, whether through governments or charities, or even private donation, ought be accountable to Government, required to account to Government, for their expenditure and modes of operation.
    Remove the opportunity for graft and you reduce the attractiveness of such work for certain types of individual. Absent such types: liars, cheats, deceivers, manipulators, seducers… you improve the quality of worker-in-the-vineyard and you lessen the chance for abuse of power. It’s not the whole answer but it’s a step in the right direction: as Truth usually is.

  8. Avatar Leo Damis says:

    Please add me to your list.

Comments are closed.