Where do we go from here? Restorative justice a path to healing

| Father Daniel Griffith | April 4, 2019 | 0 Comments

Many Catholics hope that the unprecedented anti-abuse summit held in Rome will usher in a sea change for the Church in its handling of clergy abuse and the attendant cover-up.

Father Daniel Griffith

Father Daniel Griffith

Many have asked what’s next, and where do we go from here? It is widely acknowledged by laity and bishops alike that words at this point are of little importance if they are not backed up by concrete actions and consistent policies, implemented with due urgency and enforced for the good of the Church. Time will tell whether the Feb. 21-24 gathering in Rome marks a serious shift in the areas of responsibility, accountability and transparency — a shift critical for the protection of children, for the healing of victims/survivors and for the credible proclamation of the Gospel.

While the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences were meeting in Rome, several gatherings took place in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that focused on restorative justice-inspired healing in the wake of the Church crisis. These gatherings were led by Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and a retired Marquette law professor. Justice Geske has traveled the world conducting restorative justice training sessions and healing circles, which gather those who have experienced harm, either directly or indirectly. Her travels have taken her to Ireland, Rome, Turkey and beyond, as her unique style blends faith, storytelling, common sense, humility and charm.

Admittedly, when I first heard about restorative justice I was skeptical. I am a trained lawyer, and lawyers like things that are concrete. To me, restorative justice sounded ethereal and a bit New Age. Then I met Justice Geske. A few years ago, a mutual friend and colleague introduced us over dinner, and I sat spellbound as I listened to Justice Geske’s stories about how restorative justice and restorative practices have been a source of healing and transformation for many.

At its core, restorative justice is survivor centered and employs a method of dialogue that involves listening intently to those who have experienced harm. It is a gift from the indigenous peoples of North America, who were close to nature and found this practice to be an authentically human way to address and repair harm in their community. To achieve healing, restorative justice asks three questions: Who was harmed, what was the nature of the harm, and how can the harm be addressed?

For two years Justice Geske has worked closely with local survivors, Church leaders, parishioners, law students and seminarians in an effort to move our wounded Church to a place of greater healing. Five years ago, the archdiocese was in full-blown crisis — on the verge of bankruptcy, soon to be criminally charged for failure to protect children and led by an archbishop under investigation for misconduct. Five years later, the archdiocese, while still in need of much healing and continued vigilance, is in a very different place.

The fruitful collaboration between lay leaders, clergy and Archbishop Bernard Hebda has paved the way for a constructive and collaborative relationship among abuse survivors and Church leaders. Restorative justice, while in its beginning stages, has been an integral part of this transformation. Having seen firsthand the power of restorative justice in the parish setting and in a new law school course I teach with a colleague, I offer below five reasons why restorative justice provides a positive path forward for the Catholic Church at this critical time.

 — Restorative justice is survivor centered. Restorative justice and healing circles are not a fact-finding exercise nor are they perpetrator-focused; rather, they provide a safe place where survivors are able to tell their stories about the harm they have experienced and how this harm affected them. Many survivors express that their enduring hope was that someone would listen to their story. Many experience the telling of their story as a type of catharsis. The organizers of the clergy abuse summit in Rome specifically asked bishops who were planning to attend to meet with survivors prior to making the trip. The intent was to increase awareness among Church leaders of the significant and long-lasting harm caused by clergy abuse. As Pope Francis often says, reality is more important than ideas, and the experience of clergy abuse and its significant effects must become more widely known if true change is to occur.

Some Church leaders have come to understand that the only proper response to the current Church crisis must be survivor centered, which has now emerged as a long overdue best practice. An institutional-centered response has not, and will not, work. This is what Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane meant when he called for a “Copernican revolution” during the closing liturgy of the summit — namely, a needed discovery that those who have been abused don’t “revolve around the Church, but the Church around them.”

 — Restorative justice promotes accountability for those who have perpetrated harm. Without a full understanding of restorative justice, it may be viewed as a path around the harm and away from accountability. The opposite is true. Restorative justice as applied to the present Church crisis would seek to name the harm that has been caused — both the sources of the harm and its effects. It would also seek to address the harm with an eye toward reform. As we know, the harm from our present crisis is manifold and deep.

Additionally, restorative justice invites perpetrators, when appropriate, to hear about the nature and effect of the harm they have caused — from the survivor’s perspective. In this powerful dynamic, all are moved from abstraction to reality as perpetrators hear how their particular behavior wounded another. One would hope that bishops of good will and humility come away from meetings with survivors feeling more accountable for their actions and more resolute in their determination to ensure safe environments and the healing of survivors. As a pastor, I have emerged from the experience of personally hearing the stories of survivors more determined to work for justice and healing.

 — Restorative justice includes those who have been peripherally harmed. Restorative justice practitioners refer to this as the “ripple effect,” which can include family members, friends, parishioners and members of the broader community. Harm casts a wide net. Thus, by including those who have been indirectly harmed in restorative practices, the positive experience of restorative justice can be more broadly experienced. This has been the case in the various restorative justice forums that have been held in local parishes. After an introduction about restorative justice and healing circles, those present are invited to express how they have been harmed by the clergy abuse crisis — either directly or peripherally.

Many parishioners have found this to be a deeply moving experience as they may recount their own story of being abused or that of a family member. Others may express how the Church crisis has affected them. Yet others contribute to the healing process by simply listening compassionately to the survivors and expressing their solidarity with them. As these safe dialogues unfold, those present often feel affirmed and accompanied in their experience.

 — Restorative justice is consistent with and enlightened by biblical and Catholic theology. Restoration is God’s work and can be seen in both the Hebrew Scripture as well as the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The classic philosophical definition of justice is to give each their due. The biblical understanding of justice is richer and more relational. Biblical justice is understood as right relationship and living faithfully to the demands of the covenant.

In Scripture, we see that God manifests three dimensions of justice: retributive, distributive and restorative. God’s restorative work is seen in the liberation and restoration of Israel, which, for Christians, also prefigures the restorative mission of Christ. With restorative justice very much on my mind this past Christmas, I was struck by the theme of restoration that was clearly present in the collect, preface to the Eucharistic Prayer and the readings for Christmas day. As we celebrate Easter in the coming weeks, we will again recognize the prominent theme of restoration in the Easter readings and prayers.

Restorative justice is also consistent with and informed by Catholic social teaching. Catholic social teaching seeks the attainment of justice, opposes unjust social structures and promotes human flourishing. Restorative justice has the same goal as it seeks to confront sin and harm, and promote human flourishing and healing. The principles of Catholic social teaching offer a sharp rebuke to the past conduct of Church leaders when applied to the Church crisis, but also a path forward as the principles promote greater solidarity with survivors and a preferential choice for their healing.

 — Finally, restorative justice works. The effectiveness of restorative justice is the reason why it has been employed throughout the world and for several years as a way of addressing harm. In post-summit interviews, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta stated that the testimony of the survivors “made the meeting” and that the powerful witness of survivors must be the path forward.

Restorative practices are effective, and I have witnessed this firsthand on numerous occasions and in a variety of settings. When Justice Geske first described her work to me in the area of restorative justice, I had a “road to Emmaus” moment. As she spoke about her experience, this work struck me as good and true and vital. All people seek healing and restoration from the wounds they have experienced. All people are affirmed and accompanied when one actively listens to their story.

In the weeks and months ahead, Catholics will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a path forward to greater light and healing. Restorative justice, while not a panacea, provides a path forward for the Church that puts survivors at the center, promotes accountability, addresses the broader harm to Catholics, is consistent with our biblical and Catholic theology, and is effective. Given the potential of restorative justice as a source of accountability and healing, my hope is that these practices will be used in various Catholic settings throughout the United States. Additionally, the bishops of the United States would be well served to learn more about restorative justice and its positive potential. They could be aided in this regard by experts in the field and by bishops like Archbishop Hebda and others, who have gained important experience and perspective from these vital practices.

Father Griffith is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, one of three parishes in the archdiocese asked to pilot a parish program in restorative justice. He also serves as the Wenger Family Fellow of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, where he teaches courses in Catholic social teaching, jurisprudence and restorative justice. He was ordained in 2002.

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