France has been shaken by the realization that gifted people have been abusers. Some were known but their abuse was ignored; the pedophile author Gabriel Matzneff, once honored, is now in disgrace. But the worst shock came when Jean Vanier was revealed to be an abuser, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, whose deep sympathy for the handicapped has borne fruit all over the world. He abused young women. His was only the most recent of the religious founders exposed as abusers. The Vatican is investigating seventy new groups whose founders are accused of some type of abuse. But the case of Vanier has opened the eyes of France to a secret world of heresy and abuse which the Vatican first encountered in the 1950s. Céline Hoyeau has documented and analyzed this world in La Trahison des Pères, based on her numerous articles in La Croix.
Abuse is sometimes multi-generational. The source of Vanier’s abuse can be traced back to the first part of the twentieth century. The Philippes were a large Catholic family (twelve children) in the north of France. The father went off to World War I and returned with what we now recognize at post-traumatic stress syndrome. His wife’s brother was Pierre Dehau (1870-1956), a Dominican, who took the name Thomas. He assisted in the restoration of the Dominican order in France and preached that mysticism was for everyone. His studies had made him almost blind, and he went to live with his sister’s family and became the substitute father and the tutor of the children. Dehau made obedience to God the center of Catholic life, and he as spiritual director incarnated God’s will. Dehau preached that the director and the one directed must fuse. Obedience is “to die to one’s personality, to the demands of our reason. Give up our judgment. Be a puppet, a toy of God, to abdicate all our human judgments.” This fusion and this rejection of human judgments could easily have, and did have, pernicious consequences. Of the twelve children, eight entered religious life or the priesthood, five to the Dominicans alone. One of the priests eventually had his ordination annulled on the grounds of family pressure.
Dehau developed an idiosyncratic and perhaps destructive interpretation of Thomas Aquinas. His influence on the children was bad. He was investigated by the Holy Office in the 1950s (as we shall see) but because of his age and illness was given only a warning. The files of his case remain closed, so we do not know whether his teaching or his actions, or both, were the cause of his punishment.
Henri Philippe (1912-2006) entered the Dominicans and took the name Marie-Dominique. In 1938 in Rome had an “illumination” in which he had a mystical marriage with the Virgin Mary. His teaching, according to his victims, stressed the physical union of Jesus and Mary to the point of blasphemy. His brother Jean Marie Joseph (1905-1993) also entered the Dominicans and took the name Thomas.
Immediately after World War II, Thomas Philippe, following the stress his mentor Dehau had placed on contemplation, founded a center, L’Eau vive, (The Living Water, the name of one of Dehau’s books) for the study of spirituality. It attracted Catholic luminaries, including Jacques and Raissa Maritain. In 1950 the twenty-two-year-old Jean Vanier arrived at the center and developed an intimate relationship (which was also physical, according to Antoine Paoli, spiritual director of L’Arche) with Philippe.
But in 1951 two women complained to the Dominicans about Thomas Philippe’s behavior. In 1952 he was ordered to leave the center and to go to Rome to be investigated by the Holy Office and was forbidden to keep in touch with anyone at the center. He put the very young Jean Vanier in charge of the center. After four years of investigation, Thomas Philippe was given the sentence of deposition: he was barred from any public or private ministry, including celebration of the sacraments, spiritual direction and preaching.
But why was he condemned? The Vatican’s files of the investigation are still closed, but from the files of the Dominicans and from the testimony of the Philippes’ victims, Hoyeau has reconstructed the charges: “Thomas Philippe was condemned for having entrapped women into sexual behavior through mystical justifications.” Thomas Philippe developed in a perverse fashion the tradition of erotic mysticism stemming primarily from commentaries on the Song of Songs. He also thought he could be exempted from the moral law, like Abraham who was ordered to kill his son. The Holy Office thought Philippe must be insane and sent him for psychiatric evaluation.
Marie-Dominique Philippe was also condemned for complicity with his brother Thomas’s actions. Marie-Dominique was forbidden to hear confessions, to give spiritual direction to female religious, to stay or to preach at their monasteries, and to teach spirituality. These sanctions were lifted in 1959. Their sister, Mère Cécile Philippe (1906-1986), prioress of the Dominican convent of Bouvines, was removed as prioress because of her enabling of her brother’s abuse and was sent to live in a convent under a different name.
The Vatican dissolved L’Eau vive and informed Vanier through several channels of the “unspeakable” actions of Philippe. The report by L’ Arche says: “Despite being categorically banned from doing so, Thomas Philippe continued to run l’Eau Vive clandestinely throughout the investigation period. The dozens of letters he sent to Jean Vanier during this period show that he advised and guided him in all the steps to be taken. Braving the ban (which he could not ignore as he later said), Jean Vanier met him many times during this period.”
In 1963, Vanier helped Thomas Philippe to move into his house in Trosly-Breuil and joined him a few months later. Several women joined them. Vanier took the step of inviting two handicapped people to live with them. And so L’Arche was born. Ignoring the discipline imposed on him by the Vatican, Thomas Philippe resumed his priestly and apostolic activities, confessing and directing men and women. The Dominicans and the Vatican did nothing, although the Vatican kept track of Philippe. (John XXIII warned Vanier about Philippe.) Vanier learned seduction techniques from Philippe, some of which are documented in letters. Vanier has been accused of coercive and abusive sexual relations with at least six women.
The Dominican Marie-Dominque Philippe, Thomas’s brother, taught philosophy at various houses of study and at Fribourg, where his next-door neighbor was the now-Cardinal Schönborn. In 1975 Marie-Dominique met five students who asked him to help set up a rule of life. Marie-Dominique consulted the mystic Marthe Robin who, he claimed, told him he had to help them. The Community of Saint-Jean was born. The Community admitted in 2013 that Philippe had behaved “in ways that went against chastity” with several adult women.
In 2015 Golias, an anticlerical journal but one which may be accurate, claimed that not only women were the objects of Marie-Dominique Philippe’s attention. A former member of the Community of Saint-Jean said that in the late 1990s he had two encounters with Philippe’s behavior. One was during spiritual direction, during which Philippe kept caressing the young man’s hand. The other was during confession during which Philippe took the young man’s hand and gradually moved it to Philippe’s sexual organs. The young man was embarrassed and disgusted, but to whom could he complain? Philippe was in charge – and should therefore not under canon law have been hearing confessions of members.
In June 2016, Marie-Dominique Philippe was accused of ongoing sexual abuse by a former Carmelite nun who had received spiritual direction from him. Pope Francis spoke about a women’s religious community which Pope Benedict had dissolved (one that was part of the Community of Saint-Jean) saying that “a certain slavery of women had crept in, slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder.” It was clarified by the Holy See Press Office, that the Pope did not mean “sexual slavery” but rather “manipulation.” A big difference, no doubt. Some members of the Community of Saint-Jean followed the example of their leader: in 2019 an investigative commission reported that 27 brothers of Saint-Jean abused adults, and six abused minors.
Marie-Dominique Philippe has not only been accused of abusive sexual relationships but also with having both a public and a secret doctrine. In his public teaching he developed the teaching of Aquinas that charity is a form of friendship. Friendship, as the classical world taught, either found or made friends equal. Aquinas also taught that marriage was a type of friendship. In addition to this public doctrine Marie-Dominique Philippe also taught another doctrine to his victims and disciples: friendship made one equal to God and, like God, one could dispense from the moral law; and friendship was a form of marriage, including the sexual aspect.
Hoyeau describes it:
This hidden doctrine depended notably of the idea that to certain privileged ‘contemplative souls’, it is given to live a ‘love of friendship’ such that it goes much further to a ‘union of hearts’ than married love. This love of friendship can be expressed by gestures of ‘tenderness’ – whatever they may be, provided there is not penetration. These gestures can sometimes conduce to slip-ups but there is no sin because that which is envisioned is tenderness, the desire to rejoin the person to show her that she is loved by God, and if the intention is pure, the act is also pure. And when a ‘contemplative soul’ is also in God and led by the Holy Spirit, it is above the common law just as is He, creator of the law, he is this because he is made a contemporary of God through the friendship with Him which is charity…Nonetheless, it is necessary to keep secret because others are not able to understand it.
I have translated the pronouns that refer to personne (f.) as feminine, because the victims were usually feminine. But not always. A brother entered the congregation of Saint-Jean at a very young age. The priest who taught him philosophy got a hold (emprise) on the brother and over the course of three years used this doctrine of the love of friendship to gain his end: oral sex. When the brothers went to Marie-Dominique Philippe for spiritual direction, he naïvely asked whether this was acceptable. Philippe replied evasively, because he was using the same line to have sex with the young women of the congregation.
Jean Vanier was only the best-known of the abusers because of his work in L’Arche. Many of the new groups that were founded in France were also revealed to have abusive founders, although the abuse was sometimes limited to psychological control rather than also proceeding to sexual abuse. Some founders seem to have been influenced directly by one or the other Philippe brothers.
George Finet (1898-1990) was ordained in 1923. In 1936 he met the mystic Marthe Robin (1902-1981) and became her spiritual director. She was paralyzed from the age of 16, and from 1930 until her death ate nothing, she claimed, but the consecrated Host, received the stigmata, and suffered the passion every Friday until her death. She received over 100,000 visitors (we shall meet a few). Although doctors expressed doubts about the miraculous nature of her condition, she was declared venerable by Pope Francis in 2014. Her biographer and the postulator of her cause, Bernard Peyrous, priest and member of the Emmanuel community, was disciplined in 2017 for sexual abuse of an adult. The Carmelite and expert on mysticism Koen De Meester wrote a book (published posthumously in 2020) which denounced Robin as a fraud.
She and Finet established the Foyers du charité, which, among other works, gave retreats. Marie-Dominque Philippe had for many years preached the retreats and was very close to Finet. In 2019, after the revelation of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, the Foyers began to receive complaints from women about the behavior of Finet during confession. The administration of the Foyers set up a commission which received 46 independent complaints which all described the same sexually abusive behavior by Finet in the confessional.
The Protestant Gerard Croissant became a Catholic in 1975 and was ordained a deacon in 1978, He took the name of Ephraim. He was one of the founders of a charismatic community, which first had the name The Community of the Lion of Judah and the Slain Lamb which was changed to the simpler The Community of the Beatitudes. It received its first official recognition by the Catholic hierarchy in 1979. It was later accused of being a cult because of its emphasis on extreme obedience to the point of infantilization but was defended by the French bishops. In 2008 one of the brothers of the community admitted to the sexual abuse of 50 children. In 2008 the Vatican removed Ephraim as head of the community. The Vatican sent an investigator who in 2011 announced that “the founder of the Community, former-Deacon Gérard (Ephraim) Croissant, had committed ‘crimes against the moral law of the church’ and had acknowledged ‘serious failures’ in sexual matters, particularly in regard to sisters in the community, and also an underage girl.” This abuse occurred during the Mystic Nights Ephraim held.
Marie-Dominique Philippe had been Ephraim’s spiritual director. Ephraim wrote to the community that he had told Philippe about his relations with young girls. Philippe did not correct him; instead, he gave Ephraim his blessing. The investigator said that Ephraim was zealous and generous, but, alas, “had fallen into the hands of a spiritual father, who, with the authority of a Dominican habit, had told him he could do that. ‘It’s a particular grace which is given to certain people to live an integral form of love.’ All the victims of Ephraim which I met eventually mentioned this mystical discourse.”
In 1964 the comedian Olivier Fenoy created a theatrical troop, the Office Culturel de Cluny (OCC), named after a café and the famous abbey. Fenoy wished to evangelize through art: the world would be saved through beauty. Fenoy visited Marthe Robin and claimed her support. Fenoy sought to be recognized canonically, but the hierarchy had doubts because he was both head of the organization and director of the consciences of its members, a combination canon law forbids. The members took vows of chastity, but Fenoy interpreted them loosely.
Members later described the atmosphere that Fenoy generated: “A pseudo-mysticism which magnified the so-called homosexuality of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.” When Fenoy wanted sex, he announced that “he needed someone to sleep in his bed, because his back hurt.” Martin, who had a long-term sexual relationship with Fenoy, said Fenoy would use phrases such as “John the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and “You are beautiful; it is God who has given you to me, and you have a duty.” In 1996 two community members publicly accused Fenoy; he confessed and promised to repent. But OCC was the object of lawsuits and was dissolved.
Thierry de Roucy (1957- ) founded the Points-Coeur (Hearts Home) to bring the message of compassion to the lonely, the excluded, the marginal, the slums. It included both a lay group of volunteers and two religious congregations. De Roucy claimed Thomas Philippe was his inspiration. In 2011, a canonical court decided De Roucy was “guilty of abuse of ecclesiastical power and of absolution of an accomplice in the person of his assistant a young priest who, at his request, was released from the priesthood.” In 2018 after de Roucy had disobeyed various orders, he was dismissed from the priesthood. The Vatican suppressed the religious congregations and Points-Coeur transformed itself into an NGO.
The erotic mysticism which the abusive founders used to seduce victims permeates Western Christianity, as I have discussed in my books on masculinity. But it would not have resulted in sexual abuse without the precondition of spiritual abuse. This, as Hoyeau discusses, is not recognized as a crime in canon law, but was a tactic of the founders. Briefly, it is an emphasis on obedience such that the person under obedience is infantilized and loses all ability to develop independent judgment. The member is but a puppet to be manipulated by the founder, who claims to have a direct line to God, either though mystical or charismatic experiences. The founders demanded such obedience of their organization’s members, but they did their best to escape from supervision by bishops and the Vatican.
The secularization of France in the first part of the twentieth century made Catholics realize that the mass of people would not listen to someone because he held an office in the church but might be open to hearing the gospel if the life and personality of the proclaimer were attractive. This led first to the unsuccessful experiment of the worker priests. The collapse of the priesthood, seminaries, and religious orders in the aftermath of the Vatican Council made the French bishops desperate for signs of hope, and they thought they saw them in the new movements. The bishops were therefore willing to overlook problems or dismiss them as growing pains while the bishops sought to find a place in the structure of the church for these apparent movements of the Holy Spirit. The new movements exploited the division in the church between traditionalists and progressives. Progressives criticized the movements as too conservative, although the movements ignored all the safeguards that the Church had developed over two millennia of experience with a stubbornly fallen human nature.
The movements were encouraged by Pope John Paul II, who saw in them a springtime of the Church. He, a former actor, knew the power of a charismatic personality; he became a celebrity, a rock star, so people would listen to him when he proclaimed the Gospel. He thought that the founders of the new movements were doing the same thing, and he therefore chose not to listen to evidence of abuse. The most egregious case was that of Marciel Maciel—drug addict, pervert, incestuous pedophile—whom John Paul II proclaimed, even after both rumors and evidence had reached him, to be “an infallible guide to youth.” John Paul II chose to be blind to the evil because the fruits, the orthodoxy, the vocations, the work with the poor, were so good. And not only the pope. Everyone was dumbfounded by the revelations about Vanier. How could Vanier awaken such love and care for the handicapped while he himself seduced and abused women?
And that is a mystery. How could the founders accomplish such good things while doing such evil things? We want everything to be black and white, but the world and human organizations and people and ourselves are a mix of good and evil: we are fallen. As psychiatrists explained to Hoyeau: we all have psychopathic tendencies, but they may become active depending on the conditions we are in. Some abusive founders were full-blown psychopaths: they wanted to manipulate people to hurt them. Maciel exemplifies this. Others were merely narcissists, like the actor Fenoy, and the adulation went to his head. The combination of their good work and their abuse created an uncertainty in their followers in which the only point of reference was the will of the abuser: classic Stockholm Syndrome.
But they would not have such adulation, not be regarded as living saints, about whom people would hear no evil, unless people, including to some extent the adult victims, wanted to be infantilized, to escape the burden of discernment and judgment, by finding an infallible guru, whether mystic or pope or charismatic leader. Too often people don’t want to cope with the painful realization that human beings with great gifts, real gifts, whether artistic or literary or spiritual, can have a dark and evil side, as, to some extent, we all do.
People don’t like to grow up and take adult responsibility. I sometimes think that was the reason Jesus left the earth at the Ascension. He knew that if stayed around every decision great and small would be referred to him. He wanted his followers to become not babies, but mature, adult sons and daughters of God the Father. He is a father who does not manipulate and infantilize his children like the abusive fathers of the new movements, but a father who disciples his children so that they grow up. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to guide his followers, but not to replace their minds. As Jesus said, he does not want servants (much less puppets), but friends.
La Trahison des Pères (The Betrayal of the Fathers)
by Céline Hoyeau
Paperback, 352 pages
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