The Current

'I got so angry': Members of disability group L'Arche respond to revelations of sex abuse

Members of L'Arche, an international organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities, are shaken by reports that Jean Vanier, the organization's venerated founder, sexually abused multiple women between 1970 and 2005.

Report says Jean Vanier, L'Arche's venerated founder, sexually abused 6 women

Stacy Gilchrist has been a part of the L'Arche Toronto community for nine years. John Guido is a volunteer and outreach co-ordinator with the organization. (Submitted by John Guido)

Read Story Transcript

A member of an international organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities says she felt "sad and angry" to learn that its venerated founder, Jean Vanier, sexually abused multiple women. 

Stacy Gilchrist has been with the L'Arche community in Toronto for nine years. The global initiative facilitates people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together, share in chores and take part in community activities with the support of live-in assistants, according to the organization.

Gilchrist told The Current's Matt Galloway that she's made friends and takes part in activities such as swimming.

But at a meeting of about 80 members recently, she was among those told about an investigation by L'Arche International that revealed Vanier had sexually abused at least six women with whom he'd had "manipulative sexual relationships" between 1970 and 2005. 

Vanier died last May, aged 90. None of the women had intellectual disabilities.  ​​​​

John Guido, the outreach co-ordinator for L'Arche Toronto, said that "people with disabilities will understand this information in different ways."

"Some will be traumatized, but others will be the ones who are going to lead us forward," said Guido, who has worked and volunteered with the organization for 35 years.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, died last year in Paris at age 90. (Lefteris Pitarakis/The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)

The revelations were explained and discussed at the meeting — in small groups of two or three, and as a larger group together — using a booklet that contained the key facts, and pictograms and illustrations that explained the inappropriate touching.

"There was an enormous amount of pain in the room and that was expressed in deep sadness, confusion, some real anger," Guido said.

Gilchrist worked with a friend at the meeting to express how she felt, and read to Galloway from the speech she gave on the day of the meeting.

"I don't like this. I don't like Jean. He touched women's bodies. It was wrong," she read.

"He makes me angry. I got so angry about him. I'm not going to talk about him again."

Listen to Stacy Gilchrist explain how Jean Vanier's actions made her feel.

"It was really quite powerful how much Stacy's words just kind of rippled through the group," Guido said. 

He explained that they had thought carefully about inviting Stacy to speak about the issue in public, but that she herself felt it was important.

"What it really reminded us all was that, despite what our founder did to harm women in secret, we've created a place where people are safe and where their voices are heard," Guido said. 

"And I in a way, I never felt more proud to be part of L'Arche than when Stacy stood up and spoke her truth."

'Unique' approach could safeguard good work 

Guido described the revelations about Vanier as "absolutely shattering," and said it was hard to reconcile that "this could have happened, and that we weren't aware, and that these individuals were harmed."

"You have to start then asking questions, and thinking what is it that's true, still, in L'Arche?"

But he said the organization did "want the truth to come out." 

"This is not a closed moment. We know that there will be more things that will come forward. We have to continuously bring the light of truth into the darkness of this secret world," Guido said.

Nancy Mayer, a social worker who has spent 43 years working with people who experience abuse, thinks that L'Arche's handling of the revelations is unique. 

"We've seen huge coverups within the Catholic Church, within the Boy Scouts, within educational institutions, where we put the needs of the institution first," said Mayer, an executive member of Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada.

"And the people who had been victimized and tricked are left in the dust — and that compounds the harm to the people who were already betrayed."

They are staying true to the very basic tenets of L'Arche, which is everyone deserves dignity and respect.- Nancy Mayer,  Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada

By contrast, L'Arche is "being crystal clear that what Jean Vanier did was abuse his power and it was wrong," she said. 

"What they've also been clear about is that they have compassion for the suffering of those who were victimized by Jean Vanier."

This transparent approach shows "they are staying true to the very basic tenets of L'Arche, which is everyone deserves dignity and respect," Mayer said.

By doing so, she said she thinks "they will be able to survive and continue to do their good work."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Mehek Mazhar.