Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, March 1, 2020

Why do heroes have to be perfect?

Another hero fell off his pedestal last week. Last May, after Jean Vanier’s death, I wrote a glowing tribute to him. This week, I learn that his own creation, L’Arche International, the organization that operates 154 homes for mentally and physically disabled people in 38 countries around the world, released a report that he had had sexual relations with six women.

            None of them, I’m relieved to hear, were among the disabled persons served by L’Arche homes.

            But all six had Vanier as their spiritual director. Which means they were in an unequal relationship with him. Which he exploited.

            The relationships, said the report, were “emotionally abusive and characterised by significant imbalances of power, whereby the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions.”

            The charges are not mere rumours. L’Arche might be expected to defend its founder’s reputation.

            Two women initially spoke of being exploited by Vanier. When L’Arche investigated, they discovered four more women. The women did not know one another or know about each other’s allegations, the report stated.

            L’Arche concluded that Vanier had feet of clay.

            Although it was not his feet that led him astray, unless you know that “feet” were used as a common euphemism in the Bible for male genitals.


Resisting temptation

            I don’t know how to react.

            Once upon a time I thought Jean Vanier could do no wrong. But apparently he could. Do I now treat him with the scorn and contempt that I direct at men like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Gian Ghomeshi?

            Because, in fact, their crimes reflect some common characteristics. They were all public figures. They were all famous men. Some had money; some had power; all had profound charisma, the ability to influence large numbers of admirers and acolytes.

            I want to make excuses for Jean Vanier. I want to argue that spiritual direction fosters an intimate environment, where people bare their souls to each other. It’s not a big step to baring bodies, too.

            I wonder if I would have been able to resist temptations, under those circumstances. I don’t have these men’s power or fame or wealth. And my charisma is detectable only by dogs. Even so, I know I have occasionally had opportunities. But I was too clueless, or too scared, to take advantage of them.

            If I can have those opportunities, how much more must they be present for Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby?

            And, in a different kind of environment, for Jean Vanier?

            I’m not suggesting that he used force. If there was coercion, it was persuasive. Manipulating the counsellee’s thoughts and emotions. It probably even seemed consensual, at the time. Maybe… Maybe not…


Avoid pedestals

            I wonder what I should learn from Vanier’s downfall.

            Perhaps most obviously, not to put people on pedestals.

            “We need prominent figures of personal integrity,” said Michael Higgins, professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut who has written a biography of Vanier and a book on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. “Jean Vanier [seemed to be] one of those figures, unbesmirched by scandal -- all of that now has been profoundly compromised.”

            Former United Church moderator Bruce McLeod had a similar comment: “My sorrow includes disappointment -- not primarily in Jean, but in the naive expectation that this good man would always be more than human.”

            Carolyn Whitney-Brown, author of a book about Vanier, wrote in Sojourners magazine,  “Jean was not perfect and he hurt people and he knew it. If that reality crushes your opinion of Jean, then you might ask yourself why you want any human being to project perfection.”

            I asked a group of colleagues earlier this week how to react to the news about Vanier’s indiscretions. Most of them cited Karl Jung’s psychological models. Everyone has a “shadow side,” they assured me. Even Jean Vanier. It doesn’t detract from the good he has done, they insisted.

            Except that the same might be argued about Bill Cosby. Genial Dr. Huxtable made black lives matter. Made black families admirable. He affected Americans’ prejudices.

            But I watch Cosby, led away in handcuffs, and I see a selfish old man. I view artists’ impressions of Weinstein in court, and I see unmitigated evil, undisguised by even a patina of lovability.

            And I don’t want to lump Jean Vanier into that unholy company. Even if he did have feet of clay.


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As I suspected, last week’s column about the rail- and road-blockades and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs generated a lot of comment – not always taking one side, but (thankfully) always well-thought-out and expressed. I tried picking out excepts, to cut down the length, and failed. 

            So I shall put it all into a separate mailing, to follow in a few hours. 






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                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

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                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.






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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Jean Vanier, L'Arche, sex crimes



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