Poor Pope Francis has had something of a torrid week of it. It began with the announcement that the Pontiff has been struck down by a mystery illness and was confined to bed. It approaches its end with an unwelcome letter in the post from Ireland’s most high profile Catholic. Of course, it seems fairly obvious that the letter wasn’t intended for the Pope at all, but for the editorial board of the Irish Times. It was just addressed to the vatican to ensure it made the news:
Former president Mary McAleese has written to Pope Francis saying she will leave the Catholic Church “if it transpires that the Holy See failed to act to protect members of the L’Arche Community”.
She said people should have been alerted to “the known predatory activities” of the community’s founder Jean Vanier and his mentor, Dominican priest Fr Thomas Philippe.
“I have to say that this will be my final line of least resistance. I could not in conscience continue to support an institution capable of such gross negligence,” Mrs McAleese said in the letter.
It would be very easy to laugh at Mary McAleese’s self-importance here, and believe me, we’re going to do that in a minute, but first, and more importantly, has she got a point in relation to the Varnier story? It doesn’t seem like it, at first glance, or even with a second look.
It might seem inconceivable that the Vatican did not know that the old boy was a sexual predator, but it’s not really. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising if the Vatican did know.
The allegations against him do not, for example, extend to child sexual abuse. Rather, it is alleged that he was just a common or garden creep who manipulated women to have sex with him as part of some kooky attempt at spiritual “therapy”:
“Vanier, a devout Catholic, had “manipulative and emotionally abusive” sexual relationships with six women in France, between 1970 and 2005, according to a statement by L’Arche International.
Sexual relations were instigated by Vanier, usually in the context of giving spiritual guidance.
“These women reported similar facts associated with highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviours,” the statement said.
“The relationships […] had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.
“These actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold Jean Vanier had on these women,” it said.
It also says Vanier asked the women the keep the incidents secret.
The women included assistants and nuns, according to Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, which first broke the story.
Vanier was also a member of a small clandestine group which subscribed to and participated in some of the deviant sexual practices of disgraced priest Thomas Philippe, the L’Arche statement said.”
Vanier, remember, was not even a Priest. He was a theologian and a philosopher, sure, but his work did not fall under the regulatory ambit of the Vatican. One can argue that his actions were deeply immoral, and probably criminal under some of todays laws, but it seems a push to argue that being a manipulative creep contravened any of the criminal codes of France or elsewhere during the time he was providing “therapy” to these women. As Breda O’Brien noted in last weekend’s Irish Times:
Vanier was a layman without a vow of celibacy. If he had chosen to marry, it would have been met with universal approval and happiness. But instead, he chose to justify abuse as something spiritual. How appalling it must have been for his victims to hear him referred to continually as a living saint. Their courage, like the courage of Vanessa Springora, is immense.
“Vile”, is how O’Brien describes him, and that’s not far from the mark. But there’s no reason to think that the Vatican should have been aware of his vileness. There is no reason a complaint against Varnier, if one had been made, should have landed on a desk in the Vatican.
Of course, that is not to say that it was impossible for the Vatican to have been informally aware. People talk, rumours spread, and it’s eminently possible that some Priest or layman with suspicions and the right connections could have had a word with someone in Rome and said “keep your distance from this guy, everything’s not quite right here”.
It seems unlikely that this happened, for the simple reason that if it did, then the Pope’s tribute to Vanier when he died would have been much more understated than it was, or would not have been uttered at all. Or perhaps it happened years earlier, under a previous Papacy, and was never taken as anything more than a scurrilous rumour, which did not reach the ears of the present Pope.
Which brings us back to Ireland’s most devout stateswoman.
She herself was clearly unaware of any rumours about Vanier as recently as the year 2000, when she paid the old pervert a wholehearted tribute on a platform she shared with him:
“We invited President Mary McAleese to join us. One of our founders, Jean Vanier, was present also. In a tribute to him and his work the President said: ‘There was a time when good people of good will used to ask when they saw people who were different– “What can we do to help?” What Jean Vanier did was to stand that question on its head and ask instead, “What has God in mind that those who are disabled will teach us? What is the nourishment that He expects to be bestowed on us through those who are vulnerable?”
Had the present Pope made such a speech about Vanier, McAleese would be doing more than writing strongly-worded letters to the Vatican, but she appears convinced that he would have known more about Vanier as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires than she did as President of Ireland. That seems, to put it mildly, a very big stretch.
In recent years, of course, she’s abandoned pretty much everything she used to believe, like many other Irish voters, and become the world’s leading Catholic who doesn’t believe in the Church. The Pope is now confronted with the potential loss from the ranks of the faithful of someone who rejects Church teaching on almost every subject of controversy, from women priests, to marriage, to abortion, to contraception, and so on. If she did choose to leave, why would he mourn her departure?
But as it is, there’s no particular reason why she should leave, at least on this account. If the Vatican ever does gain knowledge of every old pervert who accepts communion on a Sunday and tries to convince a woman that sex is spiritually healing on a Tuesday, publicly denouncing them all could take a very long time.
But more importantly, Mary McAleese is in the news again, so the intervention has accomplished its main purpose.