Mary McAleese writes to Pope Francis over Jean Varnier

Mary McAleese writes to Pope Francis over Jean Varnier

Mary McAleese has written to Pope Francis about the allegations of sexual misconduct against L’Arche founder Jean Vanier. The former Irish president told the pope she could leave the Catholic Church if the Holy See is found to have failed to act in the case.

McAleese wrote to Pope Francis on the 26 February. asking for an explanation about how Varnier was able to rise to such acclaim in the Church despite his sexual misconduct. The letter was published on her own website.

On 22 February L’Arche International announced the conclusions of an internal report which found Vanier had abused his position and relationship to sexually coerce six women over a period of decades. Vanier died on 7 May 2019, at the age of 90. After his death, Pope Francis issued a statement mourning Vanier, and praising his work with persons with intellectual disabilities. 

“I am conscious that you yourself have publicly praised Vanier and indeed spoke to him and of him in glowing terms just before his death,” McAleese wrote to the pope, noting that by 2019 the Vatican was aware that one of Vanier’s associates had a history of sexual predation.  

Vanier, a Catholic layman, founded L’Arche, which is an organization that assists people with intellectual disabilities through the creation of communities. L’Arche has no official ties to the Catholic Church.

“Given that vulnerable men and women were the intended beneficiaries of L’Arche, and that Vanier was consistently lauded by the Church at the highest level without the remotest suggestion that there was anything worrying in his character it is essential that the Holy See now explains how it came to so publicly commend a man whose predatory proclivities it was aware of,” said McAleese in the letter.

McAleese said that she had “regarded Vanier as inspirational for decades” and was devastated by the report stating he had engaged in sexually manipulative relationships with six women over a 45 year period. None of the women had intellectual disabilities. 

The former Irish president said that while she had “reason to despair at the failures at papal, episcopal and Curial level” in recent abuse crises, she would be unable to reconcile any knowledge that the Vatican shielded Vanier. 

“If however it transpires that the Holy See failed to protect members of L’Arche community by alerting them to the known predatory activities of Vanier and (Fr. Thomas) Philippe, I have to say that this will be my final line of least resistance,” she said. 

“I could not in conscience continue to support an institution capable of such gross negligence.” 

Vanier’s spiritual mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe, O.P., was a French Dominican who died in 1993. Philippe was accused of sexual misconduct and was suspended from public ministry following a canonical process in 1956. He ignored this suspension. 

As part of his penalty, Philippe was ordered to inform all of his lay companions, including Vanier, about his suspension from public ministry. 

In 2014, L’Arche received new reports regarding Philippe’s misconduct, and requested an additional canonical inquiry, which concluded in March 2015. A report by L’Arche investigating the professional relationship between Vanier and Philipe was published in June 2017. 

“Now that both Philippe and Vanier have been unmasked, the spotlight moves to the Holy See,” wrote McAleese. She asked the pope to explain what the Vatican knew, and what they did “to prevent Vanier and Philippe living their grand lie.” 

“What did it do or not do which allowed Vanier to grow into the uncontested legend of folk saint and icon, a reputation which must have made it so very difficult for victims to come forward,” she wrote.

McAleese said there is “undoubtedly a cloud of doubt over the Holy See,” and she urges the Church to deal with it “as openly, courageously and honestly as L’Arche dealt with the investigation into its founder.” 

In addition to being an outspoken critic of the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, especially in Ireland, McAleese has in the past clashed with the Church on doctrinal issues, advocating both for the ordination of women to the priesthood and for Church recognition of same-sex marriage. 

In November 2019, while serving as Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, McAleese stated that the Catholic priesthood was based on a “fundamental lie” and that many potential priests have a “deeply problematic” sexuality. 

“The number of fake-hetero misogynistic homophobic gays I met frightened me,” said McAleese, recounting her time living in Rome among seminarians. 

In June 2018, three months before she was awarded a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, she described the practice of baptizing infants as “coercion” and said it should be stopped.

In March 2018, she was forbidden from speaking at the Voices of Faith conference, which was typically held in the Vatican. The conference was then moved outside the Vatican and held as scheduled. In her keynote speech, McAleese accused the Church of maintaining a misogynistic attitude which seeks to drown out women.

Source: CNA