In church abuse crisis, some call for 'restorative justice'

By Peter Smoth
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 15, 2020

In a Wheeling University room normally used for musical recitals, groups of Catholics sat in small circles, each with a single lit candle in the middle, and took turns discussing their struggles to remain Catholic in an era defined by scandal.

“As a parent of four children, and a health-care provider for children, I am just unable to comprehend how an organization would not protect vulnerable people, especially one that professes to have a moral authority,” one man said. And when that authority “starts unraveling, I have a lot of questions. What else am I believing that you tell me? Why should I believe you anymore?”

The exercise was a model for what’s known as “healing circles,” used as a tool for what’s known as “restorative justice,” and the aim of the conference was to promote its use in area parishes. 

The man’s heart-felt questions were far from alone during a conference that drew lay Catholics, women in religious orders and a few priests.

Attendees mostly came from two adjacent dioceses hard-hit by scandal. Many came from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, whose previous bishop, Michael Bransfield, repeatedly engaged in sexual and financial misconduct, according to an internal report. Others came from Diocese of Pittsburgh, the largest of the six Pennsylvania dioceses targeted in a 2018 statewide grand jury report into sexual abuse by priests and a cover-up by their superiors.

More than 100 people gathered for the two-day conference in late February.

Organized by a grassroots group of mostly lay Catholics, the conference was largely led by visiting speakers who had been active in using restorative justice in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which had its own set of scandals that led to bankruptcy, criminal charges and the resignation of its then-archbishop’s in 2015.

“This came out of a place where there’s a lot of harm,” said Julie Craven, who is director of communications for a Minnesota parish and has been active in the process. 

Ms. Craven said she was initially skeptical of the tactics of restorative justice, reminding her of some of the activities that human-resources departments might lead during her previous corporate career. In the healing circles, only the person holding a designated “talking piece” can speak at a time, without interruption, and others pay silent attention without glancing at their phones.

But Ms. Craven said was won over: “We’re starting to see some really good signs with parishes being able to talk about it and move forward.”

The philosophy is to provide a voice for all who are hurt — most of all the victims of abuse, but also to those affected in the widening ripples of the scandal. At the Wheeling conference, members told of feeling betrayed by their prelates and of adult children no longer going to church. 

“The whole idea is that you’re opening your heart and listening to everybody, being able to look them in the eyes and to hear and trust their story,” said former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, a retired law professor at Marquette University and founder of its Restorative Justice Initiative.

Ms. Geske helped the Minnesota archdiocese embark on a restorative justice program, which was required as part of the church’s settlement of criminal charges there.

She emphasized that restorative justice includes justice.

It can’t work as a tactic to try to pacify victims into not seeking criminal or financial remedies. In the archdiocese’s case, she said, it couldn’t begin until after it emerged from bankruptcy and had settled financial claims with victims. For a diocese going through a compensation program, as Pittsburgh is currently, it also might be best to wait until that’s done. Otherwise it “reopens the wounds,” she said.

In the healing circles, she said, parishioners should never tell victims to get over it, or that they just need to forgive. 

“A fair number survivors will say it's the f-word,” she said. “People come to a healing place on their own paths. If you define forgiveness as meaning it was OK, you’ll never express forgiveness.” Rather it’s “a journey of letting the rage go inside you.”

But done right, it gives voice to the wounded, she said. In some of the healing circles, Catholics vent their anger directly to priests or prelates.

Several of the lay participants from the West Virginia and Pittsburgh dioceses said the church leadership has much to do to regain the confidence of those in the pews.

Jim Richter, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest in his native Chicago, now lives in Minnesota, where he also has taken a leading role in the restorative justice talks. His professional work has taken him regularly to West Virginia, and he’s dismayed by the diocese’s scandals and response.

“Don't think that anybody was any less offended than I was to come to yet another city and find out that the church isn't really being led by the most responsible people,” he said. 

Jamey Brogan, director of campus ministry at Wheeling University and a conference organizer, said he hopes that Catholics in the statewide Wheeling-Charleston diocese can begin to use the process by piloting it in a few parishes.

“The more we can get more people to the table, to be able to speak about what's happened, to speak about our frustrations and our disappointments and our hopes, the more we do what God wants of us as a church,” he said.

Accountability and transparency

Those who traveled from Pittsburgh also hope to pilot the process in parishes as they seek tools to work through members’ disillusionment over revelations in the 2018 grand jury report. That report said more than 90 priests had abused minors over the previous seven decades. Much of the abuse and cover up that the grand jury reported on had occurred before 1990, but some continued afterward, and much had not previously been revealed.

“I was part of the diocesan youth council, doing leadership retreats. I have a very strong attachment to my faith in the church,” said Samantha Calorie, a member of St. Philip Parish in Crafton. “So when everything came out with the grand jury report, I had to take a long hard look at my faith and my feelings toward the church.”

She and others who attended the conference have been active in the group Catholics for Change in Our Church, a lay-led, Pittsburgh-area group that has held listening sessions and sought to hold the church accountable and transparent. Members of a similar group in the West Virginia diocese, Lay Voices for Change, also helped with the conference. 

The conference was financially sponsored by various Catholic entities including Wheeling University, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and local religious sisters including the Congregation of St. Joseph.

Tim Bishop, spokesman for the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, said, “We look forward to finding creative ways to implement what we have learned at the conference throughout the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”

Ellen Mady, chancellor of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, also said the diocese is committed to the restorative-justice process.

“For more than a quarter century, our victim assistance coordinator has helped those who were harmed in a church-related context and sought justice,” she said. “Our newly established Office for Accompaniment is developing new ways to raise awareness in parish communities.”

She also cited the ongoing Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which is funded by the diocese but is being administered by an independent law firm. That program, which drew 367 applicants, is still underway.

John Constantino, a member of Catholics for Change in Our Church, said the group is seeking to work with the diocese where it can. “There can be various [restorative justice] implementations with different focuses” and types of attendees, he said.



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