March 30, 2020

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L'Arche founder's printed legacy damaged in sex-abuse report fallout

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lefteris Pitarakis</p><p>A report last month revealed that L'Arche founder Jean Vanier, a respected Canadian religious figure, sexually abused at least six women.</p>

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

A report last month revealed that L'Arche founder Jean Vanier, a respected Canadian religious figure, sexually abused at least six women.

Revelations that Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, sexually abused at least six women continues to reverberate throughout the Roman Catholic and wider church world.

Vanier, who died in 2019 at age 90, wrote 30 books. Christian bookstores and publishers are among those dealing with the fallout of last month’s report on Vanier’s "manipulative sexual relationships."

In Winnipeg, Stephanchew’s Church Goods took the only book by Vanier in the store off its shelves.

"The news shocked and horrified me," said owner Gilles Urquhart. "I expected more of him. What he did was unacceptable. I will not sell his books anymore."

At Hull’s Family Bookstore, the lone copy of a book by Vanier in stock had been taken off the shelf and won’t be sold, owner Bruce Careless said.

In St. Boniface, Christian Supply Centre also won’t sell books by Vanier; the reason is "just obvious," owner Ida Bibeau said.

CommonWord, which is part of Canadian Mennonite University, has not decided what to do about the Vanier books which are part of its lending program.

"We have had preliminary conversations," said Arlyn Friesen Epp, director of the bookstore and resource centre.

He said as CommonWord is part of CMU, he is awaiting a decision from the university — which itself is wrestling with what to do about an award it gave to Vanier in 2015.

Meanwhile, McNally Robinson Booksellers lists six books by or about Vanier on its website. The store has not yet made a decision about what to do about them, said general manager David Lawrence

"We’re taking a wait-and-see position," he said, adding management is keeping an eye on the issue.

The situation has also affected Novalis, which published six of Vanier’s books.

"We’ve taken them all off our website," said publishing director Joseph Sinasac. "We didn’t want to add to the suffering of his victims."

What makes the decision more painful, he said, is Vanier — whose decades of work at L’Arche helped improve conditions for the developmentally disabled in several countries — was regarded by many Catholics "as a living saint, the best we had."

Other Catholic church publishers in North America are in the same situation, he noted, adding this is also a problem for authors whose books contain blurbs from Vanier.

That’s the challenge facing Winnipeg author Jamie Arpin-Ricci. In 2015, he was elated when Vanier consented to write the foreword for his book Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick.

"It was quite a coup," Arpin-Ricci said, adding he used to joke if Vanier were canonized, he could claim his book contained a foreword from a real saint — but longer.

"He was very formative in my life," Arpin-Ricci said. "I can’t undo all the good he did for me." However, knowing Vanier abused women "changes how I engage with his work."

When given the opportunity to talk about his book, Arpin-Ricci said he will make sure to "share about the harm Vanier caused." He also won’t be able to "recommend his books like I once did."

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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