Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, is pictured in a March 11, 2015, photo. Vanier, a Canadian Catholic figure whose charity work helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in multiple countries over the past half century, died May 7 at age 90. CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association

Peter Stockland: There’s no mystery to this deception

  • March 5, 2020

Friends, acquaintances and the general commentariat have all been roiling over the revelations about Jean Vanier as a serial sex abuser.

The stickler mystery invariably takes this form: “How could such a man of great good so evilly coerce sexual gratification from at least six women over 30 years?”

Call me simplistic, even simple minded, but I think the answer is straightforward. As I mentioned to someone last week, it comes down to four small words and one massive delusion:

  1. “No one will know.”
  2. The pinless hand grenade of self-deception.

Obviously, I’m not privy to Jean Vanier’s inner thoughts as death crowded around his nonagenarian body in 2019. I’m willing to bet my shekels, though, that one of them involved relief, perhaps contorted satisfaction, that the secret sexual wrongs he committed from the 1970s until 2005 would go with him to his grave.

Can we seriously think the opposite is true? Can we really entertain the belief someone of Vanier’s perspicacity would assume that when the news broke, the world would shrug and say: “Tut-tut, Jean. The boyish hijinks of serial rape are nothing beside all the good you’ve done with L’Arche”?

Of course not. The precedent of a certain fellow named Adam walking through a garden and deliberately violating an order directly from God Himself (“Who me? I didn’t do it; she made me…”) shows how old and enduring is the human capacity for believing that secret disobedience will never out.

The destructive power of such deception really is equivalent to holding a hand grenade that has no pin. The very lucky (slippery?) might escape its blast. The rest? KA-BLAM!

The mystery to me as a Catholic is why other Catholics find this a mystery. Many seem mystified anew whenever it happens. Surely the Catholic ability to defeat cynicism lies precisely in our faith’s joyful hope of recognizing what delusional horrors human beings inflict yet still remain open to redemption, salvation, life with Christ.

Look, we humans have historically demonstrated our capacity to nail the Son of God to a tree. And yet that self-same Son tells us we can be with Him in Heaven this day. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet God so loved the world that He sent His only son for our salvation.

As we enter Lent, we need reminding that these truths, this relation between humanity and God, are not cheap, greasy, get-out-of-jail-free cards. They are calls to hard reality. They are calls to discernment of grace.

Especially at this time of year, I like to let roll in my mind one such call in the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us….” There’s particular Lenten weight in the words that follow: “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent….”

Miserable offenders. You can’t whisper those sibilants without sounding supremely serpentine in your own ears. You can’t hear the miserableness and the offensiveness without recognizing that miserable offender is precisely what we — not just Jean Vanier — are. Miserable in that we cause misery with our offences. Miserable in the sense that our offences are invariably so poor, so puny, so pathetic.

Yet the very recognition of our miserableness comprises a call to God to bestow mercy on us. It is the condition of our asking Him to spare us but, infinitely more importantly, to restore us.

We cannot do it without openly seeking grace. Here’s why: As Lent ends, we will cry “Hosanna” to Jesus on Palm Sunday. One week later, we will shout “Crucify Him” at the Son of God. And the Jean Vaniers among us will be there as Christ’s redemption frees the world.

Mystery? You want Mystery? There’s your Mystery.

(Stockland is publisher of and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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