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L'Arche Canada says changes made amid sex abuse scandal tied to founder Jean Vanier

The international organization and L'Arche's Canadian branch have taken steps to improve whistle-blowing and reporting procedures
Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, is shown in London in a March 11, 2015, file photo. The charitable organization founded by Vanier says it has made changes to protect staff, volunteers and participants since sexual abuse allegations against Vanier first came to light in 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

MONTREAL — An international charity that helps people with intellectual disabilities said it has been making changes as it attempts to grapple with revelations about its Canadian co-founder's sexual abuse of women.

Lori Vaanholt, a vice-executive director of L'Arche Canada, said the organization introduced measures to ensure that staff, volunteers and people with intellectual disabilities were protected from abuse in 2020, when a first report commissioned by the charity's international office concluded Jean Vanier had manipulative sexual relationships with at least six women in France between 1975 and 1990.

A second report, released Monday, identified at least 25 women abused by Vanier between 1952 and his death in 2019, including in Canada and India. The report said the relationships between Vanier and the women were "part of a continuum of confusion, control and abuse."

"When I first heard the information, one of the first things that I was trying to just wrap my head around was, how could this have happened within this organization and we didn't know and, in fact, we failed the women who were abused," Vaanholt said in an interview Monday. "We didn't see it, we didn't stop it, it happened and we are deeply, deeply sorry for that."

She said the organization proactively sought to uncover what happened and how it could improve its structures and practices.

Among the steps that have been taken since 2020 were audits of the 157 L'Arche communities in 37 countries — where people with intellectual disabilities live and work alongside people without intellectual disabilities — to evaluate the practices in place to prevent abuse. Another audit will be done this year, with future audits scheduled every three years.

"This is an important part of our growth as an organization and it's ongoing and evolving and we're committed to that," she said. 

The international organization and L'Arche's Canadian branch have taken steps to improve whistle-blowing and reporting procedures, she said.

While the report didn't find evidence that Vanier abused people with intellectual disabilities, Vaanholt said abuse education is now mandatory for people with disabilities in order to give them "the language ... the understanding that they have choice, autonomy and rights around how they are treated."

But she admits it is difficult to reconcile the good work the organization has done with the disintegration of its founding myth. Vanier had said a “revelation” during a visit to a psychiatric facility led him to found the charity when in fact the new report concludes he used the charity as a screen for his sexual abuse.

"The real mission of L'Arche, which is when people come together, across difference, into relationships of friendship, where each person is valued and each person is able to be equal in those relationships — that's real, and literally hundreds and thousands of people across the world have experienced that," she said.

L'Arche continues to operate 28 communities across Canada and has two "projects" — potential communities that are being evaluated.

Madeline Burghardt, who teaches disability studies at Western University in London, Ont., and York University, said the founding story and Vanier's subsequent decision to invite two men with intellectual disabilities to live with him played a big role at L'Arche, particularly in the organization's early decades.

"Jean was important. His teachings were important. His writings were important," said Burghardt, who lived in a L'Arche community in Toronto for two years in the mid-1990s and held a number of roles at the organization in the following decade. "When he came to visit communities, this was a big deal ... and yet this founding story that we thought we knew is different than we thought, and it's a terrible story."

Burghardt, who has not worked for L'Arche since 2008, said Monday's report shows the organization needs to look at practices that date back to its early days, including its lines of authority and trust in its hierarchy.

At times, she said, people within the organization have talked about being "called" to positions — using a religious term that can lead people to stop thinking critically.

While the organization has been removing references to Vanier from its website on its library bookshelves, she said "there's that second layer of where are the imprints of his model of authority that linger, that we need to really address in a deeper way, and this report has made that painfully obvious."

It's not just people involved in L'Arche who are affected, she added. At least 10 schools in Yukon, Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan that were named for Vanier have changed their names since 2020.

"I think a lot of Canadians held Jean Vanier in very high regard, so it's a reckoning for a lot of people on this legacy," Burghardt said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2023.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press