Parishes explore healing circles’ potential for restorative justice

| May 1, 2018 | 0 Comments

Janine Geske, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and founder and former director of Marquette’s Restorative Justice Initiative, speaks about healing circles for victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse April 29 at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The woman in the film said she was 12 when a priest began to abuse her, which was complicated by feelings of being in love with him.

Confused about the situation, she eventually reached out to a religious sister at her school and then met with her parish pastor. That pastor, who was not the perpetrator, told her that, although she was young, she was “old enough to seduce a priest.” Then her parents found love letters the priest had written. Her father accused her of sexual immorality and her mother asked, “How could you do this to us?”

Identified only as Mary, the now middle-aged woman said she lived for decades feeling the abuse was her fault, even when a therapist she visited in her 40s insisted it wasn’t. She shared her story as part of a 2016 healing circle in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, documented by its leader, Janine Geske, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and founder and former director of Marquette’s Restorative Justice Initiative.

Geske, who also sat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court from  1993-1998, showed the documentary April 29 at St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove and Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis. Both two-hour events included brief remarks from Geske, “The Healing Circle” video and then the opportunity for attendees to participate with small groups in the healing circle process.

Healing circles originated with a Native American tradition, Geske explained, and she has used them as tools for effective restorative justice, or efforts to repair harm cause by a crime — in this context, clergy sexual abuse. Participants sit in a circle around a lit candle and then take turns speaking while holding a stone. Only the person holding the stone is allowed to speak.

“It’s small groups, and it’s people connecting with each other and hearing each other and reaching out,” she told The Catholic Spirit.

Healing circles might be an avenue for helping abuse victims/survivors feel acknowledged and welcome in their parishes, she said. Many survivors feel ostracized by their parishes, or by parishioners who wouldn’t believe them and defended the offending priest. In many cases, parish leaders and fellow parishioners have never apologized and welcomed them back, perpetuating the rift between the survivor and the Church.

“A lot of survivors who still want to be part of the Church … feel that there’s no welcoming in our community,” Geske said in her presentation.

The healing circle excerpted in the film included clergy sexual abuse victims/survivors, a victim’s parent, church employees, a priest offender and Catholics who haven’t been abused, but who have experienced an erosion of faith or trust in the Church because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Healing circles could be part of restorative justice efforts implemented in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for Catholics to seek healing — from individual abuse situations and as a community — as the local Church continues to respond to clergy sexual abuse allegations that arose after the Minnesota State Legislature lifted in 2013 the statute of limitations on abuse cases.

The allegations — which exceed 400 — stretch back decades. In order to achieve equitable remuneration for victims/survivors, the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015 and continues to work in mediation with claimants’ attorneys toward a consensual plan for Reorganization.

Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Joseph the Worker and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis are independently working with Geske and Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, on ways parishes can initiate healing and restorative justice in the area of clergy sex abuse.

Among the more than 50 attendees at Our Lady of Lourdes’ event was Tom Johnson, a Lourdes parishioner and the ombudsman for abuse victims/survivors in the archdiocese.

“My overwhelming emotion after viewing it was to be sad and mad,” he said of the healing circle video. “But then you have to take your madness and figure out, alright, where do you direct that? And there were some good suggestions in our circle about how you convert that anger into … change. It’s a starting point, but I found this session real energizing as well.”

He said that he has a sense that there’s “a fairly significant percentage” of Catholics who know someone affected by clergy sex abuse, and they might want to take part in the healing process.

About 20 people have reached out to him in his ombudsman role, which he began in January. He thinks some of them might be attracted to the healing circle process. Others want a more private, personal encounter with a member of the clergy acknowledging and apologizing for the abuse, he said.

Attendee Deb Polchow, a Basilica parishioner, agreed that the event was “a start” and it made her feel hopeful.

“I have been waiting for something to happen regarding healing and … for anybody to start talking about this whole issue,” she said.

“People in the pews have been affected a lot, but people say we need to just stop talking about it and move on,” she added. “Before we can move on, before we can stop being negative, we have to talk about what’s going on and how did we get this way and why, and what’s happening and how it’s eroded the trust before we can start to heal and move on.”

Polchow said she is an abuse survivor, but not of clergy abuse, and she would like to see the Church reach out to all people who have been abused, not just those hurt by clergy.

“It needs to be, ‘Everybody, come together, let’s heal,’” she said.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who attended the event at Our Lady of Lourdes, said he thought it “was very positive, in the sense that it got people talking and wondering about what is our next step.”

He appreciates that determining exactly how parishes can face the hurt of abuse is a collective effort, not something he’ll determine alone.

“The discussion in our circle was very helpful,” he said.

Father Daniel Griffith, Lourdes’ pastor, described the event as “very powerful.”

“People are very moved, and they’re looking at what are the next steps,” he said, noting that parishioners who attended told him they wanted to ensure their parish welcomed victims/survivors. He said he thought healing circles could be an effective tool.

Lourdes’ Justice and Charity Committee has already been tasked with continuing to explore avenues for restorative justice. A parishioner suggested the archdiocese also hold an annual event, such as a Mass for healing. More immediately, Father Griffith plans to add a petition for victims/survivors to Masses’ prayer of the faithful.

“That is something we can do next Sunday,” he said.

Geske told The Catholic Spirit she’s moderated healing circles in maximum security prisons with “high-level offenders” with positive results, she said. Speaking from a faith perspective, she said the connections participants make “are very much what God calls us to do for one another, and I think the Spirit is present in each circle, because people share their true heart.”

The circles also provide an opportunity for Catholics who have not experienced abuse to reflect on how they have been affected by the abuse crisis and their responsibility in helping direct victims/survivors heal. The film, Geske said in her presentation, showed “how much it [abuse] ripples through all of us.”

“It’s not ‘them’ and ‘us,’” she said. “It’s ‘us.”

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