L'Arche community grapples with revelations about disgraced founder

Jean Vanier had "manipulative sexual relationships" with at least six women, between 1970 and 2005, according to the findings of an independent inquiry released by the international charity on Saturday.

Jean Vanier had 'manipulative sexual relationships' with at least 6 women, inquiry finds

Jean Vanier, who died last year at 90, founded L'Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. An independent inquiry revealed that Vanier, a respected Canadian religious figure, sexually abused at least six women between 1970 and 2005. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)

He was the son of a Governor General who founded a groundbreaking movement called L'Arche, where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in communities around the world.

But now, Jean Vanier's legacy of humanism and inclusivity has being tainted by devastating revelations, leaving its members "hurt, angry, devastated and upset," according to L'Arche Canada's national board chair John Rietschlin.

L'Arche International revealed on Saturday the results of an independent inquiry that found Vanier had sexually abused at least six women with whom he'd had "manipulative sexual relationships" between 1970 and 2005. None of the women had intellectual disabilities, though the report did not rule out other potential victims. ​​​​​​

Vanier died in Paris on May 7, 2019, at 90.

"Many people … knew him and loved him deeply. To learn that Jean engaged in this behaviour was just unbelievably shocking," Rietschlin told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

L'Arche, and the founder of L'Arche, are not the same thing.​​​​​- John Rietschlin, L'Arche Canada

"Certainly it changes the way we think about Jean. It's impossible to ignore the evil things that we hear in this inquiry," said Rietschlin, who's been involved with the charity for 30 years. "It doesn't change the fact that we wouldn't be here as L'Arche except for Jean. And so we're grateful for that, but absolutely, it changes a lot."

John Rietschlin is national board chair for L'Arche Canada. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Now, the L'Arche community is grappling with the task of communicating the essence of the report to its most vulnerable members, including 30 people with intellectual disabilities in Ottawa, where L'Arche has had a presence for 47 years, to reassure them that "they're still safe," Rietschlin explained.

One such "emotionally devastating" conversation involved Robert Lamoureux, an Ottawa man with disabilities who's lived within the L'Arche community for 40 years. 

Rietschlin said he showed Lamoureux a picture of Vanier after explaining about the abuse. "Robert pushed the picture aside and he said, 'He's a bad man!'" Rietschlin said.

"We do not wish to deny that Jean was an important part of our founding story, and there are many, many people whose lives were profoundly touched by him personally. We can't deny any of that. Whether we are going to try and disassociate from Jean is an open question," he said.

"L'Arche, and the founder of L'Arche, are not the same thing."

With files from Ottawa Morning