Restorative Justice Film Promotes Healing, Honors Role of Late Ombudsperson

By Barb Umberger
Catholic Spirit
September 30, 2020

Hunter Johnson assembles a video camera and audio gear in July 2019 before interviewing people in a New York City park for a Human Rights Watch video project. Johnson more recently was commissioned to make a documentary on restorative justice efforts in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. COURTESY Hunter Johnson

Filmmaker Hunter Johnson took on a commission of a lifetime when he agreed to make a documentary about restorative justice for clergy abuse victims while honoring his father’s legacy.

Johnson, 31, is the son of the late Tom Johnson, a former Hennepin County attorney and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ first ombudsperson for clergy sexual abuse survivors, for whom he served as an independent advocate.

Not long after his father passed away June 8 after a six-year battle with prostate cancer, Hunter’s mother, Victoria Johnson, also an attorney, succeeded her husband as the ombudsperson.

Victoria Johnson provided feedback as Hunter completed sections of the film. When she saw the final, edited film, she felt overwhelming love for her husband and for her son, whom she said conveyed the story beautifully.

“He told the story of restorative justice in a way that I think will speak to people’s hearts and especially to people who need healing,” she said. “I think their stories, their testimony is so compelling that if people are fearful, that would … help them move through that fear to reaching out to someone, be that me or anybody else who’s there to assist them, their church community.”

Posted on YouTube as “Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church and Beyond,” the 19-minute film premiered online Sept. 12 at a virtual restorative justice event hosted by Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, the Johnson family’s longtime parish. Distribution avenues are being determined, but victim assistance coordinators at parishes across the country are among potential audiences, those working on the project said.

Victoria Johnson said the film shows a continuing need for vigilance.

“But a page has been turned,” she said, “when the archbishop (Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis) can go with the ombudsman, my husband, on a cold, snowy day to meet with a victim to see and hear his story, and say, ‘I am sorry this happened to you.’”

An independent Restorative Justice Working Group that includes victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, parish representatives and archdiocesan employees commissioned the film last year. They hoped it would introduce the concept of restorative justice and explain how the archdiocese uses the concept of naming and healing harm to help victim-survivors of clergy abuse.

Hunter Johnson, who studied filmmaking and has done documentary work in Honduras and Minneapolis, spent nearly a year conducting video interviews, including with victim-survivors and his father. He also incorporated clips from other sources and edited the film. The project could have been completed more quickly, he said, if he hadn’t had graduate school commitments and a pandemic to deal with, which canceled or postponed some events. He also helped his mother care for his ailing father.

Hunter Johnson said it was important to start and end the film with the words of a victim-survivor.

“We really wanted that to be the perspective that people started with and were left with,” he said.

The film includes footage shot last October at a restorative justice symposium held at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, which Tom Johnson moderated.

Father Daniel Griffith, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes, suggested the film be dedicated to Tom Johnson.

“As I was editing, I realized it couldn’t be anything but that,” Hunter Johnson said. “And it was obviously super emotional for me.”

But it also was therapeutic.

“I knew it was something he would want … completed and cared deeply about,” and it was a good way to honor him and his legacy, he said.

“My dad had a really profound empathy for people,” Hunter Johnson said. “And I think that’s reflected in the film.”

He said his father was one of the best listeners he knew, which was a good fit for his role as ombudsperson.

“But he was also responsible for holding the Church’s feet to the fire,” he said, “and making sure they were following through on their commitments that they agreed to in the settlement.”

That settlement agreement, reached in 2015, was between the archdiocese and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office over criminal and civil charges that the archdiocese failed to protect three children from sexual abuse from former priest Curtis Wehmeyer. The agreement included a provision requiring an ombudsperson, and the archdiocese and the county jointly appointed Tom Johnson to that role in January 2018.

Hunter Johnson said the film allowed him to learn things about his father through other people’s eyes.

“I feel like I’m getting to know my dad even better now … because I’m learning all these other stories I’d never heard before about this area of his work at the archdiocese and how he helped people,” he said.

Watch “Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church and Beyond” at restorative justice.








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