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18 December 2019

A way of healing: Restorative Justice

The Centre for Services in Restorative Justice (CSJR), founded in 2001 in Montreal, is working to create spaces for expression, listening and sharing among people affected by criminal acts. The means that the Centre uses to achieve this goal are intended for those who have been victims of criminal acts, those have committed them, as well as for members of the community who wish to engage in a restorative process based on encounter and dialogue. Victims of crime are supported in their need to express themselves and be recognized. Individuals who have committed crimes are encouraged in their process of taking responsibility and their willingness to make reparation. Finally, the community is made aware of this form of alternative justice and is invited to participate in it. The restorative justice approach is thus aimed at contributing to social peace.

Since the restorative justice approach is based on the liberating voice of the crime victim speaking out, that same approach applied to the context of sexual abuse in the Church must also begin with that kind of testimony. The excerpt available here comes from a podcast produced by the CSJR. In this excerpt, Gilles, who was sexually assaulted as a child (outside the religious context), describes what the restorative justice approach has given him in his life.

Liberating one’s voice to liberate oneself

Restorative justice allows the creation of spaces in which a safe dialogue can take place. At the CSJR, we offer “Victim-Offender Encounters” (VOE), which are group meetings, and we also propose meetings in a “Face-to-Face” format1. These meetings bring together people who have committed a crime with people who have suffered similar crimes. In other words, in our meetings, we do not bring together an offender and his or her own victim—a process proposed by Correctional Service Canada. A meeting organized by the CSJR could, for example, bring together assailants and victims, or guilty murderers with people whose lives have been overturned by the violent death of a loved one. These individuals meet on several occasions spread out over a period of a few weeks, at the CSJR or in a penitentiary, and are supervised by trained volunteers.

Why propose such meetings around crimes suffered or committed in a similar way? In some criminal cases, the offender may not be known to the victim, or the victim may not want to see him or her again, the perpetrator is dead or has not been disclosed, or does not acknowledge the acts perpetrated. The meetings proposed by the CSJR therefore allow people who have been victims to experience a restorative justice process that they might not otherwise have experienced.

The dialogue in these meetings opens up spaces for answering questions haunting the victim: “Why did you do such a thing?,” “Are you aware of the suffering that your action caused?” or “Why me?” By providing a transparent answer, the person who has perpetrated acts of violence helps the victim to repair himself and, in the process, the perpetrator repairs himself as well. Ultimately, it is the social fabric that is restored where crime had broken the trust necessary for living together. This social dimension is included thanks to the presence of citizens who, in the dialogue, represent the community. That makes it tangible that crime affects us all and that we are all responsible for it.

Finally, while restorative justice is often associated with the notion of forgiveness, that is not the goal of the approach. For some people who have been victims, the idea of forgiveness is experienced as a pressure or even a need of the offender who would like to appease his conscience. For others, forgiveness will be experienced as a very personal gesture that is intended primarily to liberate oneself.

Restorative justice is not opposed to traditional justice: rather, it is complementary to it. Restorative justice gives the person the freedom to change and heal internally. It is not a question of denying or trivializing reprehensible acts, but of going beyond punishment alone.

Restorative justice in the Church?

In the face of sexual abuse, the Catholic Church has set up abuse-prevention policies and pastoral ministries responsible for establishing safe pastoral environments. Working on prevention means showing victims that we are aware of the impact of the acts that have been inflicted on them.

However, what about repair in the Church? Assaults have already taken place: lives have been turned upside down, the social fabric of many communities of faith has been severely weakened, offenders have been tried. Those are the three key elements of restorative justice: it includes victims, offenders and the community, and it proposes a process in which everyone will find some appeasement.

Among the possible ways of repairs in the Church, here are two of them:

1. Restorative circles

This initiative has been observed in particular in France and the United States. On November 3, 2018, in Lourdes, during the plenary assembly of the Bishops of France, the Bishops met victims of sexual abuses committed by the clergy. In four different sessions, four circles of bishops listened to victims testify about their experiences and suggest ways of prevention and healing. The meeting’s format did not inspire unanimity, neither from the victims nor from the bishops, but the moment will have been important for having listened to the words of the survivors of such tragedies. “I felt to a certain extent reintegrated into the body of the Church from which I had felt rejected,” said Véronique Garnier, abused by a priest for two years in early adolescence.

In the United States, on May 1, 2019, a similar meeting was held at Catholic University of America. For a whole day, there were discussions among victims, a dozen bishops, canon law experts, youth protection specialists and victim assistance coordinators.

2. Masses of Reparation

This line of action is more in line with the symbolic and restorative impact of rituals. Normally, a Mass of Reparation is held when a serious act has been committed in a sacred place. In 2019, the Archdiocese of Hartford (Connecticut, USA) held Masses of Reparation, including in one parish in particular where five aggressor priests (out of 48 identified by the diocese) had been abusive. The archbishop appeared before the assembly, on his knees, then prostrated himself and asked forgiveness from God, the assembly, the entire community, and
of course the victims and their families. According to Alain Ferron, priest and prison chaplain in Laval (Quebec), the gesture would have been even more powerful if people in the assembly had also prostrated themselves in front of the victims along with the archbishop. That would have symbolized the community’s responsibility, in both the crime and the reparation.

A space of humanity

Restorative justice is not magic. It is not made for all individuals who have been victims, nor for all those who have committed a crime. It is not an approach to begin a path of healing. Restorative justice proposes, in freedom, a path of hope to open up a space of humanity, one not tainted by the violence suffered or perpetrated. Finally, here is an excerpt from the testimony of an offender, Jean-Paul. It is with him that Gilles, the survivor of sexual assaults introduced at the beginning of the article, undertook a restorative justice approach. The word at the end is his, to open a space of humanity. Let us hope that the Church will know how to create such spaces in the near future.

Find more information in the Testimonies section of the Centre for Services in Restorative Justice’s website.

Mathieu Lavigne
Centre for Services in Restorative Justice (Montreal)

1 The services of the CSJR are free and the entire process, whether one is victim or offender, is voluntary. Also, the procedure does not affect the file of a detained person, because it is a personal approach.

This article is taken from the Autumn 2019 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Abuse in the Church: Between Crisis and Hope”.