Catholics need a restorative justice approach to the church’s sexual abuse crisis

American Magazine [New York, NY]

December 20, 2022

By Daniel Philpott

Wounds remain. This was a chief conclusion of an independent working group on the clerical sex abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church that proposed the following measures last month:

—Develop a national center with experts and practitioners to equip the broader church with practices of restorative justice that would accompany those who have been directly and peripherally harmed by abuse, particularly forums in which victim-survivors tell their stories and receive love, recognition and empathy.

—Establish a national healing garden as a permanent site of healing, prayer and accompaniment for victim-survivors of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and for the broader church.

—Institute an annual day of prayer and penance for healing and reconciliation for victim-survivors of clergy abuse and for broader healing in the church.

—Create trauma-informed training for clergy, seminarians, lay ministers, lay leaders and parish communities to communicate the realities and effects of trauma in order to compassionately accompany victim-survivors.

The idea for this project came from Katharina Westerhorstmann, a German theologian who suggested that the church could learn lessons of justice and healing from the experience of nation-states that have confronted the wounds of dictatorship, civil wars, genocide and the maltreatment of Indigenous peoples, such as South Africa, Germany, RwandaCanada and many others. Dr. Westerhorstmann and I secured a grant in 2019 from the office of the president of the University of Notre Dame to explore the question.

We held two consultations, in fall 2021 and 2022, each of which involved about 25 participants, including victim-survivors, advocates, restorative justice practitioners, psychologists, scholars, deacons, priests and bishops. The first of these began with participants opening their hearts with stories of abuse and cover-up that they had suffered or heard about. Both consultations concluded that many survivors remain unhealed, much truth languishes hidden, accountability has fallen short, repentance is inadequate, reforms are incomplete and the church’s credibility in the world has been sullied.

Nobody denied the church’s meaningful strides in protection of the vulnerable, accountability and, in some cases, accompanying survivors, but the participants concluded that vast wounds yet remain. Most searing were the stories of survivors of abuse who received little empathy or acknowledgment from priests, bishops and other church officials. Many reported that financial compensation contributed little to their healing. Not a few shared that being treated with neglect, indifference, silence, suspicion or even hostility was more traumatizing than the abuse itself.

What the participants learned most from reflecting upon the experience of nation-states were the efforts of governments and civil society organizations to promote restorative justice, a holistic approach to crimes that addresses the wide range of harms involved, deploys a set of practices that redresses these harms, and involves the wide set of stakeholders who were affected by the crime and may contribute to its solution. Restorative justice contrasts with a more abstract concept of punishment based on law and proportional penalty alone. It has been practiced for centuries by Indigenous peoples who have addressed harms through measures that restore a right relationship between wrongdoers and victims and that reintegrate communities.

In the past quarter century, several nation-states have adopted traditional restorative practices into their efforts to fortify nascent peace settlements and democratic regimes. Following a civil war in Uganda, leaders encouraged matooput practices, rooted in the traditions of the Acholi people, that features a village ceremony in which apology is voiced, restitution is agreed upon, forgiveness is given, and the assembled community affirms the restoration of ties so that its common life can continue. In confronting the violence of civil war in Sierra Leone, peacebuilders organized ceremonies known as fambul tok, in which similar restoration takes place around village bonfires.

Likewise, gacaca courts in Rwanda and community reconciliation panels in Timor-Leste were formed around Indigenous practices of communal reconciliation. Often, religious leaders promoted restorative justice. Archbishop John Baptist Odama in Gulu, Uganda, strongly advocated for matooput ceremonies. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, looked to both Christian and Ubuntu traditions as sources of restorative justice.

Janine P. Geske, a retired Supreme Court justice of the State of Wisconsin and a participant in our initiative, agrees that restorative justice can help to heal the wounds of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She has pioneered healing circles that bring survivors together with representative offenders, non-offender priests, church employees and other stakeholders, like family members. (Stephen J. Pope of Boston College, another participant in our initiative, wrote about Justice Geske’s efforts for America in 2018.)

In these circles, adapted from certain native American tribes, victim-survivors tell their stories, relate their wounds and voice their hope for healing in the presence of the other participants. Victim-survivors experience the love of the church—even after some of them have left it—rather than being shamed, stigmatized or forgotten. The presence of church representatives communicates the church’s care for victims and their restoration. In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, for example, Archbishop Bernard Hebda has encouraged participation in the circles and meets regularly with victims in person.

Restorative justice expresses the church’s theology of reconciliation, the Apostle Paul’s term for God’s restoration of the world to himself through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians participate in God’s saving justice by becoming “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:20) in the world’s conflicts, whether they take place in families, nation-states or the church. It is in the Eucharist that the convergence between God’s vertical reconciliation of the world and the horizontal reconciliation that it empowers takes place.

Fittingly, our restorative justice initiative comes at a time when the U.S. bishops have called for a eucharistic revival, and each specific proposal is grounded in the Eucharist. A national center would help to spread healing circles to dioceses around the United States, develop standards for their effective practice and train facilitators. A national healing garden would convey public acknowledgement of survivors of abuse and the church’s ongoing commitment to their healing. (One participant in our initiative, Michael Hoffman, led the establishment of such a garden in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which could stand as a model for a national garden.) An annual day in the church’s liturgy would bear the wounds of abuse publicly and collectively and accompany victim-survivors in their long journey of healing. Finally, trauma-informed training would educate leaders of the church at all levels in matters of sex abuse and the effects of trauma, including the healing potential of restorative justice.

These proposals do not preclude other efforts that are needed for accountability, truth-telling and reparations. But they are achievable measures for healing in the church. Through restorative justice, the Catholic Church can address its wounds proactively and through its most foundational source, the Eucharist, rather than in reaction to the latest media outrage. And it could inspire other churches and organizations dealing with much the same crisis.