Don’t Let Jean Vanier (or Other Heroes) Off the Hook

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The rhetoric around fallen leaders often erodes our high call to holiness.

L’Arche International recently published an internal report revealing the news that Jean Vanier, its founder, sexually abused women for decades. In the report, the leaders of L’Arche unequivocally condemned Vanier’s abusive behavior. They sought forgiveness from the victims while also lauding the victims’ courage to come forward and testify.

Along with many others, I was devastated by the news. After Vanier won the Templeton Prize, I contacted him about a possible interview. When his secretary was on vacation, he sent me a personal response that said, “From Jean, yes we can meet, tell me when you can come, peace.” Although I was never able to go, I cherished the invitation. I had been quoting Vanier in my writing for years. And in the seminary classes I taught, I repeatedly used Vanier as a role model of incarnational community and an exemplar of what it means to manifest Christ’s presence in the world.

As news about his abuse ricocheted across the globe, many of us took to social media to express our reactions and to collectively grieve. Many echoed Mark Galli’s question about sinful leaders: “What are we to make,” he writes, “of everything they taught, if their lives exhibited anything but what they taught?”

Others have opined that if we were more realistic about human nature, we wouldn’t be disappointed. “The lesson, surely,” Michael Coren tweeted, “is that nobody should be placed on such a pedestal.” Still others have wondered if we should have heroes at all.

They’re right, of course, but only in part. Scripture does tell us that “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). …

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