Sexual abuse: the brothers of Saint-Jean face the truth

Sexual abuse: the brothers of Saint-Jean face the truth

We knew that the Saint-Jean family (the Brothers of Saint-Jean, or “little grays”, the contemplative sisters, the apostolic sisters) had been shaken for years by cases of sexual violence. Courageous victims had begun to speak out at the end of the 2000s. We had learned that their founder, the Dominican Marie-Dominique Philippe, like his brother, Thomas Philippe, also a Dominican, was a perverse manipulator. The successive reports of the independent commissions commissioned by l’Arche, then by the Dominican order, had brought to light part of the practices of the founder of the Saint-Jean family.

But we never imagined deviations of such magnitude. The report entitled “Understanding and healing. Origins and analysis of abuse in the Saint John family”, published on the brothers’ website, Monday June 25, reveals an insidious culture of abuse (spiritual, sexual) widespread in the congregation in from its founder, author of a flawed theology justifying his acts and those of his “disciples” whom he covered.

Chilling numbers

The report, the result of four years’ work, establishes facts, which are extremely numerous, and intends to open up paths of resilience for the congregation. Five brothers participated in the writing of these eight hundred pages, as well as a historian, two therapists, and a psychiatrist. Sisters were consulted. It is therefore not an independent commission in the sense that Ciase was, which worked on sexual abuse in the Church, or the two commissions of inquiry on Jean Vanier’s Arche and on the responsibility of the Dominican order in the sexual violence committed by the brothers Thomas (the inspiration for Jean Vanier) and Marie-Dominique Philippe, founder of the brothers of Saint-Jean in 1975.

The cold figures reveal a sum of suffering and broken lives. The commission lists 167 victims: nuns, lay people, minor boys and girls, religious, lay men. 72 brothers committed assault or rape (20 rapes are counted), or 8.26% of the 871 professed who made vows in the congregation. As for the abusive priests, they represent 13.33% of the 390 priests of the congregation. Sister Alix Parmentier, first superior of the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean, subservient to Marie-Dominique Philippe, also committed sexual assaults on religious.

The founder is at the forefront of the abusers. Twenty-four women victims of his attacks, including a minor, have been identified. Their number could be much larger, say the editors. The facts described range from sexual assault to rape. Kisses, embraces, caresses imposed. A sister sees her hand taken by Father Philippe to slip it under her habit, over her sex. “In at least two situations, the gestures went much further (sexual touching, masturbation, fellatio) and were repeated, sometimes for months or years (up to ten years)”, specifies the text, which sometimes suffers from inaccuracy in the qualification of acts. A sexual abuse is noted in 2005, the year before the death of “Marie-Do”, in her ninety-fourth year. Three brothers describe gestures imposed by the founder. One of them, who complains to him about sexual acts he has suffered from a formative brother, only receives a kiss on the mouth.

Spiritual abuse, breeding ground for sexual abuse

But the sexual abuse of the founder cannot be separated from the spiritual abuse and the doctrinal deviations that found them. The theological component of the commission of inquiry’s study analyzes the distortions that Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, an esteemed Vatican professor, imposes on moral theology, justifying its practices, spreading a form of perverse culture in the community. The love of friendship, a classic theme already developed by Aristotle, and taken up by Saint Thomas Aquinas, becomes a fusional relationship in which the members of the Saint John family are encouraged: “Man then gives himself up to his friend as the prey and the victory of his love. He belongs to him; he is his good. The friend can use his friend as he pleases; he can ask him anything”, states the philosopher during a conference in 1961.

In moral theology, the teacher adored by his public privileges the intention which governs an act to judge its morality. For the Philippe brothers, “the intention that animates their sexual practices is pure, because it seeks to live and express divine love, and not to seek pleasure for its own sake”. If chastity is required of religious, the founder’s doctrine suggests to brothers that the Holy Spirit can lead them to transgress this rule “for a greater good”. The spirituality of the community tends towards quietism and exposes it to abuse: it is enough for the believer to allow himself to be led by God. His cooperation with divine action, and therefore his discernment, matters little. The door is open to the abuse of a spiritual director who would claim a freedom received directly from the Spirit.

Understand and Heal

How did Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, trained by the Dominican order, come to justify practices contrary to the principles of religious life, violating people’s freedom? Historical and psychological studies expose the closed family “system” from which he came: “Father M.-D. Philippe had, from the 1950s, abusive sexual behavior similar to that of his uncle (Dominican Thomas Dehau) , his brother Thomas and his sister Cécile (Dominican nun).The Roman sanctions against them “did not shake the certainties of Father Marie-Dominique Philippe. Rather, they seem to have heightened his skills in trickery and concealment.”

Reading this report, following those of L’Arche and the Dominican order, highlights the failure of religious authorities and the Holy See, unable to manage problematic situations and people for decades.

It raises another question: is it possible to reform a congregation whose founder, bearer of the initial charism, showed such perversity? Shouldn’t it be reorganized from top to bottom, change its name? That of Saint-Jean was linked by the founder to a fusional spirituality denying otherness. The precedent of the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder led a double life and committed sexual abuse, suggests that Rome will not force the brothers of Saint John into deep reform. These two congregations were held in high esteem by Pope John Paul II.

Can the founder’s shadow be dispelled? Not that easy. “A good number of brothers find it difficult to integrate the reality (of sexual abuse and its consequences) into the story of their vocation,” writes psychiatrist Dominique Struyf. Others, who wanted to remain loyal to their founding father, formed a dissident community in Luxembourg under the name of Verbum Spei. Others joined the diocesan clergy, or the Dominicans, or left consecrated life. The sisters of Marie Étoile du Matin, dissidents of the contemplative branch, “continue to refer to Father Marie-Dominique Philippe and Alix Parmentier”. “Among them, no victim has declared themselves”, the report is astonished.

Initially, the victims can address the Commission Recognition and Reparation to obtain financial and moral reparations. We imagine that they will be attentive to the future of the Saint-Jean family.

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