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New report analyzes origins and phenomena behind abuse in France’s St. John community

Father Marie-Dominique Philippe. / Credit: Herwig Reidlinger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Paris, France, Jul 2, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

The Brothers of St. John Community in France published on June 26 the findings of its internal investigation into a system of sexual and spiritual abuse initiated and propagated by its founder, Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, a charismatic figure who died in 2006. 

The 800-page report, titled “Understanding and Healing: Origins and Analysis of Abuse in the St. John Family,” revealed that since its foundation in 1975, 167 people have been victims of abuse committed by 72 brothers — about 8% of all the brothers belonging to the community since its creation.  

In a press release, the brothers stated that the majority of incidents have been committed against adult women in the context of spiritual accompaniment and that they range from inappropriate language to rape. 

The fruit of a three-year investigation, the report was commissioned after the release, at the community’s general chapter in 2019, of a report from an initial commission that had shown the structural aspect of abuse in its institute in connection with its founder. 

The Brothers of St. John community, founded in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1975, is a branch of the St. John Family, which includes two other female contemplative branches as well as lay members known as oblates. Today it numbers some 422 brothers and approximately 100 priests in formation spread in some 50 priories around the world. 

This is the third time this year that Philippe’s name has been mentioned in reports analyzing the phenomena of using power, influence, and spiritual authority to obtain an unhealthy grip on young, dynamic Catholic communities.

The first in the series was the report by L’Arche Federation, published in January, which shed light on the extent of the abuses committed by its founder Jean Vanier under the influence of his mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, the brother of Marie-Dominique Philippe. 

The two brothers, both Dominicans, were then at the heart of a wide-ranging study commissioned by the Order of Preachers in France to understand the institutional mechanisms that facilitated a system of abuse for years, despite Vatican sanctions against them as early as the 1950s for cases of sexual abuse legitimized in the context of spiritual guidance.  

The sanctions imposed by Church authorities of the time — which had identified a deviant theology as the basis for justifying these abuses — were quickly swept under the rug to the point of being unknown to most members of the St. John communities as well as Pope John Paul II, whose friendly relationship with Marie-Dominique Philippe had further consolidated the founder’s legitimacy and aura of holiness.

Emergence of a ‘small cult’

The new report, published 10 years after the first revelations concerning Philippe, is the result of collaboration between the Brothers of St. John and various outside experts, combining a theological, historical, and psychological approach to the matter.

In particular, the report analyzes the ways in which notions such as friendship, mercy, and union with God were used in private contexts to justify abusive behavior. It also illustrates the extent of the Philippe family’s sphere of influence, since their sister Cécile Philippe and uncle Thomas Dehau, both Dominicans, are also involved in these investigations.

“What’s very important here is that these facts are not about isolated individuals but about an entire family who were thought to be ‘good Catholics’ who had a deeply dysfunctional education in a closed environment, and who made followers, to whom they passed on their perversion,” Father Elias Leyds, a member of the Community of St. John since 1987 and founder of EWTN in the Low Countries of Europe, told CNA, adding that these mechanisms were reinforced by the community dimension that fostered the emergence of a “small cult.”

“Many people around couldn’t imagine what was going on, myself included, even though I’d been a prison chaplain for a long time and thought I’d seen and heard everything,” he said. 

For Leyds, the novelty brought out by this report is the phenomenon of psychological control, made possible by intrusion into a person’s spiritual and contemplative life.  

“The abuse scandals of recent years have mainly concerned, in most cases, clergymen who used their positions of authority to physically abuse minor boys. Now we’re becoming aware of the existence of mystical kind of abuse, which comes on top of physical abuse, and consists [of] a perversion, a confiscation of the intimate link with God.” 

Disconnection from institutional Church

Another central element of the commission’s analysis is the profoundly problematic approach Philippe and others in the community took toward the way they lived out leadership and community life.

In an interview with the KTO TV channel following the publication of the report, Brother Jean-Yves, the community’s communications manager, referred to a “very vertical and compartmentalized system, which has favored silence,” and a certain disconnect with the institutional Church, including the local bishops.

“It was this self-referentiality of Marie-Dominique Philippe, who constantly bypassed the institution, that allowed such a system to develop,” he said, adding that collective awareness within the community came about above all through the regulation of this institutional link.

“The more frank the dialogue and the link with the Church authorities, the more we free ourselves from this hold of Philippe.”

“I am grateful to this commission for this work of clarification and objectivity, which is painful but more than necessary, because our responsibility must be public,” Leyds said.

“It is now up to us, Brothers of St. John, to make sense of these wounds, as well as our presence in this community, and try to understand God’s will for us.

“We will continue to make progress in the right direction as long as we remain anchored in faith, hope, and charity, in the light of the risen Christ.”

At their General Chapter in 2022, the brothers, along with the female branches of the St. John Family, made the decision to no longer observe the rule of life written by Philippe and approved a new declaration that will henceforth serve as a reference for the brothers in organizing their religious and community life.

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