Morwenna Orton reflects:
On Friday, the fourth day of our Pilgrimage, we had hoped to visit Bethlehem, but sadly this wasn’t possible. Part of the visit for some of us would have been to visit L’Arche Bethlehem, a project for people with severe learning disabilities which Bishop Christopher has asked people in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark to support this Lent, through his Lent Call. Robin, my husband, and I were particularly looking forward to going there because one of our daughters is a core member in the L’Arche London community in Lambeth and two of her cousins live in L’Arche houses in Kent.
L’Arche is a wonderful community. It was started in France by a young man in 1964 who, with a friend, invited to men from the local long stay ‘mental handicap hospital’ to live with them and share their lives. Its core principal was to recognise that not only is every single person created by God and loved by God, but that everyone, however disabled, can make a contribution spiritually or otherwise to the common life. Every single person, even if they seem strong and capable, has weaknesses too and needs to learn and receive from others. There is enormous respect for each individual. Certainly our daughter is treated more respectfully by the L’Arche assistants who share her life more than we have managed to do consistently. From that one shared house in France has grown an international movement which has communities in many different countries, of which L’Arche, Bethlehem is one.
The man who started the movement, Jean Vanier, influenced many, many people through his writings and was widely revered as a spiritual giant. People thought that after his death he would quickly be made a saint.
Two weeks ago news was published that Jean Vanier had spiritually and sexually abused six women in France, whom he had given spiritual direction. As far as we can tell he did not abuse anyone with a learning disability.
The news of this abuse has been devastating for L’Arche and especially for anyone who knew Jean Vanier personally or admired his writings. L’Arche’s founding story has been besmirched. There are three things which are outstanding about the way L’Arche has responded to this crisis. The first is that when allegations were first made L’Arche International immediately commissioned an independent report and published its findings. The second is that our daughter’s community decided that all its members, people with intellectual disabilities, assistants and managers, should meet together to share this news and their reactions of grief, anger and betrayal, not just once but several times, to begin together to assimilate the news and to comfort one another. The third is that they have received many, many messages of support and condolence.
Jean Vanier is condemned for his despicable abuse but the good work of L’Arche goes on.