Many in the Catholic world are experiencing shock and sadness at the news that Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with multiple women. America Magazine reports on a press release from L’Arche USA, which states that the investigation “reveals that Jean Vanier himself has been accused of manipulative sexual relationships and emotional abuse between 1970 and 2005, usually within a relational context where he exercised significant power and a psychological hold over the alleged victims.”

Perhaps this is a good time to review some basic professional ethics for clergy and professors. The cases described in the initial reporting indicate that Jean Vanier was in the role of spiritual director with the women who reported abuse. Sexual contact or sexualized behavior between a clergy member/minister/spiritual director/professor and a congregant/client/directee/student is a violation of the ministerial/professional relationship. It is always wrong when a person in a position of religious leadership takes advantage of a vulnerable person instead of protecting them.

Much attention has rightly been paid lately to clergy sexual abuse of minors, and rightly so. But we also need to attend to the realities of vulnerable adults. The FaithTrust Institute, a leader in advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, has published many helpful resources for faith based communities, including a handbook called Responding to Clergy Misconduct by Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune with Kimberly Day-Lewis,MD, Rabbi Mark Dratch, Rev. Dr. Aleese Moore-Orbih (2009). That text clearly explains (pg 27, 29):

ANYONE can be taken advantage of by a faith leader regardless of age or circumstance.

VULNERABILITY makes people susceptible to victimization. It also makes them susceptible to coercion and manipulation by someone they trust.

Children or teens are particularly vulnerable due to:

  • Age, size, lack of awareness or knowledge, lack of experience
  • Sexual abuse or domestic terror in the home
  • Dependence on adults due to:
    • The need for adult approval
    • And instinctive trust of adults
    • A reliance on adults’ interpretations of feelings, thoughts, and experiences
    • A special relationship with the adult involved

Adults are particularly vulnerable due to:

  • Lesser power, gender, fewer resources, emotional needs, in crisis, history of abuse expectations, and feelings about minister:
    • May trust in faith leader as respected authority figure
    • May assume clergy and other ministers are safe people to confide in because of their position (or because of celibacy for Roman Catholics)
    • May be attracted to the minister’s sensitivity, caring style, charisma, or power
    • May attempt to sexualize the relationship


Sexualized behavior in the ministerial/professorial relationship can include:

  • Sexualizing conversations (including telephone, social media, or email)
  • Asking for or transmitting unwanted sexual images/texts
  • Unwanted touching (unwanted massages, touching of sexual organs even over clothing, kissing)
  • Pushing for sexual involvement
  • Creating hostility when the person being targeted attempts to set boundaries
  • Using sexual language and jokes
  • Sexual activity (oral sex, masturbation, intercourse, rape)*

If a priest, spiritual director, or professor violates this sacred trust, it should never be labelled as “an affair,” “an indiscretion,” “a mid-life crisis,” “adultery,” “therapy,” “involvement,” or “betrayal of celibacy.” It should be labelled sexual abuse. This is because of the inherent power inequality of the relationship and the power that attaches to the ministerial/professorial role. (See FaithTrust, Responding to Clergy Sexual Misconduct, 29).

It is always the responsibility of the person who has more power in the relationship to maintain healthy boundaries in the relationship and to explain why healthy boundaries are important to the relationship.

A survivor-centered and trauma-informed response must become the norm in our faith communities and university communities. The 2018 Report of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego Compassionate Care Team is an excellent resource for Catholic communities who want to avoid retraumatization of victims/survivors in the reporting process. University College London has just announced a new Personal Relationships Policy that recognizes the problem of boundary violations and grooming behavior between professors and students. The policy is intended to name power inequalities and to prevent abuses of power. If you teach at a university, look up your own institution’s policies. Do they need to be revised? Perhaps that is something you could work on.

If you are the victim of sexualized behavior from a priest, spiritual director, or professor, there are people who want to help you. It is not your fault. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673. You can also seek out more information at RAINN. *For More Information, See: David K. Pooler, Preventing and Responding to Clergy Perpetrated Sexual Abuse: A Guide to Best Practices (Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, 2017); on child sexual abuse see Darkness to Light