An esteemed Catholic figure who sought to improve conditions for the developmentally disabled is now accused of sexually abusing six women during the half-century he ran a France-based charity.

A report produced for the charity, L’Arche International, says descriptions by the women prove Jean Vanier manipulated them into sexual relationships from 1970 to 2005. The report says Vanier, who died in 2019 at age 90, had a “psychological hold” over his victims.

Victims report being “deprived of their free will”

Despite being a layman and not a priest, Vanier, who was Canadian, was regarded by many Catholics as a living saint for his work with the disabled. But the women reported being coerced into sexual relationships. The report did not rule out other potential victims.

None of the women involved in the report is disabled. That is a significant point as Catholic leadership has long portrayed sexual relationships between church leaders and other adults as consensual unless disability was involved.

The victims still suffer “deep wounds”

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements say power imbalances, such as those seen within religious organizations, can easily lead to abuse. The report says each of the six women, who did not know each other, said they were seeking spiritual guidance when they engaged in sexual activity with Vanier.

The report says each of the women reported similar experiences and said Vanier’s misconduct was often tied to “spiritual and mystical justifications.” A statement by L’Arche International says some of the women still suffer greatly from the abuse.

The allegations expose a gap in the church’s handling of abuse claims

The charges highlight a significant disparity of how sexual abuse claims are handled within the Catholic Church. Since he was a layman, Vanier was not subject to sanctioning procedures for abuse, which pertain only to priests, bishops and cardinals. The worst in-house penalty for those individuals is defrocking, which essentially makes them a layman once again.