Can restorative justice help the church heal from sex abuse scandals?

Amid the rising anger among U.S. Catholics over ongoing revelations of sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up of these crimes by ecclesial authorities, it seems clear that none of the current proposed strategies for reform pay enough attention either to the dignity, needs and desires of survivors or the degree of damage that was done to social trust within the Christian community. The church’s fear of legal liability and concern about money combine with a desire to “move on” that does a disservice to the needs of victims and indeed the wider, shaken Catholic community. These interconnected problems are deep and multifaceted and so cannot be “solved” by any one project, practice or norm, however apt. But I would suggest that the church take a cue from the restorative justice movement.


In 2004, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that over the course of the last 50 years, at least 4,392 priests and deacons had been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 10,667 minors. To date, victims have filed at least 3,000 civil lawsuits. Since 1950, the church and its insurance companies have paid approximately $4 billion to victims of sexual abuse. To mention just a few of many examples: In 1998 the Archdiocese of Dallas paid $30.9 million to 12 victims of one priest; in 2003 the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay $85 million to settle 550 lawsuits; and in 2007 the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to 508 people abused by priests and lay church employees.

The Catholic Church's sex abuse problem is so deep and multifaceted that it cannot be “solved” by any one project, practice or norm. But I would suggest that the church take a cue from the restorative justice movement.

Bishops, pastors and concerned lay people often assume such large payments fulfill the church’s responsibilities to victims of clerical sexual abuse. Many archdioceses, dioceses and religious communities, including the Archdiocese of Boston, have chosen to go beyond the strict requirements of legal justice and to cover the costs of counseling services or other resources that victims might find helpful.

Until recently, it has also been easy for us to assume that the problem of clerical sexual abuse has been “solved” by the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. While we await the result of Vatican deliberations over how best to hold prelates accountable, we can be relieved that the Dallas Charter did institute reforms that by any reasonable measure have vastly improved the protection of minors. Anyone who works for the church now or is being considered for employment has to pass a criminal background check. A zero-tolerance policy requires supervisors to suspend any credibly accused person from his or her role in the church, subject that person to an impartial investigation by outside professionals and report the accusation to local law enforcement. If the allegation is “admitted or established,” the offender is permanently removed from ministry.

These measures were based on careful research and the adoption of best practices that have been proven successful in a wide variety of clubs, organizations and schools. Indeed, as the clinical psychologist Thomas Plante notes: “The number of abuse cases since 1982-83 have dropped like a rock, and since 2002 they are really down to a trickle. There is less child abuse in the Catholic Church today than just about any other comparable organization.” No level of abuse, of course, is tolerable.

These two major developments since 2002—the large financial payments and the norms of the Dallas Charter—might create the impression that the church has properly discharged its duties to victims. Yet we also know that money does not necessarily heal deep emotional and spiritual wounds, and prevention of future crimes does little to restore the health and well-being of victims.

The Damage Done

Victims and their advocates have often complained about approaching church authorities and getting nothing but excuses, evasion or accusations of disloyalty. Bishops all too often acted as chief executive officers or political office holders focused on damage control and on protecting the “brand” of their institution rather than as pastors or, even more fundamentally, as human beings called to respond to the ongoing pain and suffering of individual victims. Among the most shocking features of this ongoing scandal is the church’s appalling lack of compassion for victims. As the film Spotlightdemonstrated, responsibility for ignoring or discounting the voices of victims lay not only with clergy and religious but also with the laity.

One cannot overestimate the damage of trust that has been done with the Catholic community. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that about 22 percent of baptized Catholics regularly attend church services. At the present time, 15 percent of baptized Catholics in the Boston archdiocese regularly go to Mass. If we are to take sociological findings seriously, declining church attendance is not due solely or even primarily to the scandal. A variety of factors in our increasingly secular, consumeristic culture are having a disintegrating effect on communities and institutions of all kinds.

Yet the scandal has aggravated an already critical situation, particularly when it comes to the moral credibility and authority of the church’s leaders from top to bottom and from smaller- to larger-scale responsibilities. Many younger Catholics I teach at Boston College believe the church pays only lip service to its professed moral standards of compassion for the vulnerable and fairness for all. Adopting the practices of the restorative justice movement could help re-establish the church’s moral credibility on these pressing issues.

The sex abuse scandal has aggravated an already critical situation, particularly when it comes to the moral credibility and authority of the church’s leaders from top to bottom and from smaller- to larger-scale responsibilities.

Restoring Trust by Seeking Justice

The practice of restorative justice emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s in various countries as a way of dealing constructively with wrongdoing and violations of social trust. The Australian criminologist John Braithwaite defines restorative justice as

a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm. With crime, restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. It follows that conversations with those who have been hurt and with those who have inflicted the harm must be central to the process.

Restorative justice has become a movement with global reach. It has been practiced successfully as an alternative to juvenile incarceration in New Zealand, as a dispute resolution forum in college dormitories at the University of Vermont, as a way of addressing school bullying in Hong Kong, as a means of rehabilitation in Brazilian prisons and as a mechanism for inmate re-entry in Hawaii. Restorative justice is strikingly different from criminal justice in giving priority to repairing the harm caused by wrongdoing—including first and foremost the harm done to victims but also to the wider community and even the perpetrators.

Practitioners of restorative justice recognize that punishing and excluding perpetrators, even when warranted, does little to help victims; defrocking an abusive priest, however warranted, does not repair the damage he has done to his victims. Its practitioners facilitate cooperative and respectful dialogue in which all stakeholders participate in a process that promotes the transformation of their relationships. The process normally works only when perpetrators are willing to take responsibility for what they have done. While it does not and perhaps should not always lead victims to forgive their abusers, the process has helped to bring healing to relationships in criminal justice systems, families, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and elsewhere.

The pioneers of this movement in the English-speaking world have often been Christians, particularly Mennonites and Quakers. Catholic intellectuals like William O’Neill, S.J., and Daniel Philpott have also made significant contributions to both the practice and theory of restorative justice, particularly as a vehicle of reconciliation. Restorative justice programs in jails, prisons and detention facilities have been endorsed and sponsored by a variety of bishops’ conferences (including California and Minnesota), the Western Province of the Society of Jesus and (since 2000) the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Among other prelates, Ricardo Ramirez, C.S.B., the retired bishop of Las Cruces, N.M., has been a champion of restorative justice.

Catholic activists and academics are also becoming more and more aware of the alignment of restorative justice principles with Catholic social teaching. The Restorative Justice Network of Catholic Campuses focuses on the teaching, research and use of restorative justice principles in Catholic colleges and universities. The Catholic Mobilizing Network promotes the values of restorative justice as an alternative to the “culture of death” that underlies the death penalty. An important new book edited by Trudy D. Conway, David Matzko McCarthy and Vicki Schieber,, called Redemption and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Restorative Justice, sketches ways in which Catholics have promoted or could promote restorative approaches to honoring victims, repairing relationships and rebuilding communities after wrongdoing.

Catholic activists and academics are becoming more and more aware of the alignment of restorative justice principles with Catholic social teaching.

The Process in Action

The attempt to apply restorative justice principles to sexual abuse is not entirely new to the church in this country. Janine P. Geske, a former justice of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and emeritus distinguished professor of law at Marquette University, is a well-respected expert in alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice. She has run restorative justice programs in state prisons in Wisconsin.

In recent years, Professor Geske has adapted restorative justice practices for use in the context of clerical sexual abuse. She has been particularly active in restorative practices in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, thanks to the support of Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda.

Instead of direct victim-offender mediation, Professor Geske’s team forms “healing circles” that include survivors, representative offenders, non-offender priests, church employees and other stakeholders. She has found healing circles have at times been able to help victims go through the process of becoming survivors. They can help victims break through the confining internal walls created by shame and stigmatization.

The restorative process seeks to give victims an opportunity to tell their stories without interruption or rebuttal in a respectful, caring environment. This small, open community enables participants to lovingly affirm the goodness and worth of the victim and to invite him or her out of isolation and into supportive solidarity. In reality, a restorative workshop is the start of a healing process rather than its completion.

The restorative process seeks to give victims an opportunity to tell their stories without interruption or rebuttal in a respectful, caring environment.

A Victim-Centered Resource

The restorative justice movement offers a valuable resource for addressing the harm done to victims of sexual abuse and repairing the damage to social trust within the church. Most important, restorative justice offers a victim-centered platform for addressing wrongdoing.

While it assigns primacy to the voices and dignity of those who have been harmed, it also allows wrongdoers to take responsibility for their actions and involves members of the wider community in deliberating over how to rebuild broken relationships and prevent similar wrongdoing in the future.

Experienced practitioners of restorative justice do not expect smooth progress or easy resolutions in tragic cases. Yet they do want to create a space where victims who want to do so can tell their stories.

We should not naïvely assume that the kind and degree of harm done to traumatized victims of sexual abuse can be overcome with a few structured dialogues, however well intentioned and wisely conducted. Experienced practitioners of restorative justice do not expect smooth progress or easy resolutions in tragic cases. Yet they do want to create a space where victims who want to do so can tell their stories; this is no small thing for those who have been silenced and shamed for most of their lives. Local Catholic communities that sponsor healing circles could at least let victims know that their voices and stories ought to be heard. One hopes that such a process will help victims feel recognized, acknowledged and valued by the wider Catholic community represented in their particular restorative circle.

Restorative justice is clearly not for everyone and certainly not for every victim of clerical sexual abuse. The presence of a representative sexual offender in the process, when appropriate, must always be handled delicately and skillfully. Yet for all the delicacy of what is demanded, Professor Geske maintains that in some cases restorative processes have already played an important role in the healing of survivors and their communities and in helping guilty parties take responsibility for their actions.

We can hope that in addition to the other measures that have already been taken, the adoption of restorative justice practices within the church might help to correct the church’s failure to listen to victims and its confusion of settlement payments with healing. In this way, we can help to show both fellow Catholics and the wider world what it means to be a community of compassion and not just compensation.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church.]

Mike Macrie
1 week ago

Well I think Restorative Justice is God’s way of Cleansing His Temple.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
12 And Jesus entered the temple[a] and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

James M.
1 week ago

“There is less child abuse in the Catholic Church today than just about any other comparable organization.”

That remark is predictable, and a give-away. It absolutely proves that people who say that, are completely missing the point.
The USCC’s ability to “feel good” about itself, which that remark panders to, could not possibly be less important. The real evil is twofold at least:

The USCC has spat in the face of Christ by harming His “little ones”, in body & soul;
& it has given a hideous witness to Him. Priests these days are far less likely to be associated with holiness and righteousness, than with deceit, hard-heartedness, & horrible perversions. They have made the Name of Christ to stink.

This is counter-evangelisation with a vengeance. How can a Church that counter-evangelises with such deadly effect, possibly be in any condition to evangelise and bring forth good fruit ? The Bible several times says that God does not hear the prayers of the wicked, and that the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to Him. I see no reason why that should not apply to the Mass. If clerics of evil life offer the Mass, how are they not calling down the Wrath of God upon themselves ? The strongest statements about the Wrath of God are in the New Testament - not the Old.

As St Peter writes:

“14If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are ye; because the Spirit of glory and the Spirit of God resteth upon you. 15For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil-doer, or as a meddler in other men's matters: 16but if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.
17For the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God: and if it begin first at us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God? 18And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear? 19Wherefore let them also that suffer according to the will of God commit their souls in well-doing unto a faithful Creator.”

asian fanfics
6 days 20 hours ago

Rehabilitative justice can help the church cure the most sexual abuse scandals, and return purity to the church. The viets you share are great.

fnaf world


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