An international mental health charity based in France accused its revered Canadian founder on Saturday of sexually abusing several women.

L'Arche (The Ark) said an independent investigation had found that six women were abused by Jean Vanier between 1970 and 2005 but that none of the victims identified were disabled.

Vanier, a devout Catholic who set up L'Arche, in the 1960s, died last year of cancer.

"We are devastated by these revelations and we condemn without reserve this conduct which is in total contradiction with the values that Jean Vanier claimed," top L'Arche Internationale officials Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney said in a letter to group members.

L'Arche runs 154 centres in 38 countries where people with mental disabilities can live with their carers.

It said the investigation by an outside body produced "sincere and consistent accounts over the period 1970-2005" from six women with whom Vanier had "initiated sexual relations, generally as part of an overall relationship of spiritual guidance".

Vanier had a psychological and spiritual hold over the women, it said, and his abusive behaviours appeared to have mirrored some of the "deviant theories and practices" of his spiritual mentor and an early advisor to his orgainisations, Dominican priest Thomas Philippe.

Philippe, who died in 1993, who was also accused of sexually abusing women.

The letter from L'Arche officials voiced their gratitude to women who broke their silence on Philippe and "helped others escape from the unjust burden of guilt and pain".

L'Arche founder Jean Vanier died last year
L'Arche founder Jean Vanier died last year AFP / Tiziana FABI

The Conference of French Bishops expressed shock at the revelations and pledged to ensure they were fully investigated.

The preliminary probe found that the victims were often considered vulnerable "owing to troubled family histories, or were seeking a father figure, or recognition or spiritual direction."

According to one witness, Vanier justified his actions by saying: "It is not us, it is Mary and Jesus. You have been chosen, you are special, it is a secret. Jesus loves you through me."

One of the women explained that "It was as though I was paralysed. I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living saint, and when he spoke about his support for victims of sexual abuse, it seemed like some sort of camouflage."

Corref, an association that represents men and women who serve the Catholic Church, said: "The acts committed by Jean Vanier are unspeakable and unbearable" and "in total contradiction with everything he said and wrote during his time at l'Arche."

In 1971, Vanier also co-founded Foi et Lumiere (Faith and Light), a network that claimed to group 1,400 "communities of gathering" for handicapped people in 86 countries.

The head of l'Arche in France, Pierre Jacquand, spoke for many when he told the French Christian weekly La Vie: "The gulf between the man I knew and the one I am discovering is huge.

"I am fighting to accept it, even though I know the facts are indisputable."