Back to RJ Archive

The legacy of clergy sexual abuse: A cry for restorative justice

June 15, 2009

I was coming off a holiday when I read a news article entitled Legacy of Irish Abuse Revealed (Reuters; May 21, 2009) detailing decades of sexual abuse of children in Ireland by clergy dating from the 1930s to the 1990s.  I do not think there is one person active in the restorative justice movement that is not drawn to these stories of suffering. Though articles have appeared and some research has been produced, the restorative justice community seems to be largely silent.

For those of us who consider ourselves on the “cutting edge” of restorative justice, and I like to think of myself at that place after 17 years of working in the trenches, there is no way we can read of such horrific abuse and not stop and ask what can we do?  To do nothing seems almost criminal. What worries me about this story is the conclusion by the governmental Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse that religious orphanages and industrial schools in the 20th-century Ireland were “places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.”

After a nine year investigation into claims of sexual abuse by clergy against children, the conclusion is harrowing but more than that it is a call to action. But will there be action? Although originally the Commission intended to publish the names of the actual perpetrators of abuse, one of the largest providers of residential care of boys in the country, the Christian Brothers, was able to prevent that through litigation. No abusers will be prosecuted as a result of this inquiry.

In 2001, I felt compelled to get involved. That led me to partnering with a colleague in London, Theo Gavrielides, whom I had not met in person. We found that we both shared a passion for restorative justice and the idea of applying those principles to these emerging clergy abuse cases in the U.S. We tried many things, both through his research entity (Independent Academic Research Studies or IARS) and my nonprofit in the U.S. (The Justice & Reconciliation Project or JRP), but we encountered barriers which ultimately stopped our progress. Some of those barriers were internal and some external (i.e. lack of access to willing offenders through the Catholic Church and lack of necessary funding to lay the groundwork for (a) victim-offender meeting). What I had hoped then, and hope now, is that restorative justice be revisited as the needed response to extreme injury to human beings.

In 2001, I wrote an open letter to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, re-printed in various places, stating why applying restorative justice to these abuse cases was so critical. I stated that by applying restorative justice it was not only doing the right thing but it also clearly reflected a response based on the Christian faith. Yet, with every year that passes and with astonishing reports like this one coming out of Ireland we seem to get further and further away from a real response that will help heal victims, and communities, and hold offenders accountable. That reality could change, but I am afraid not without the action of some bold leaders who understand the need to go deeper into this problem.

I am reading a book on the life of Bishop Desmond Tutu called Rabble-Rouser for Peace by John Allen (Free Press, 2006). The author speaks of apartheid and a clarion moment when Tutu became convinced that it was time for the church to do the right thing. Those who had offended had to take stock and make things right with those they had injured. Accountability had to be a part of the process for it to lead to a place of peace and healing. 

Maybe that is what is needed now rather than whitewashing, as it were, the sins of many. As I wrote in 2001, no one individual can give a blanket apology for the sins of those abusers. Each must be held accountable and for those who are deceased there are other symbolic ways that restorative justice even then can be applied. Perhaps it is time for a truth and reconciliation commission or something similar. Whatever the response it is time to take the cutting edge principles of restorative justice and turn those principles into action.

It is not too late. Not for the victims. If we choose to say nothing we are saying something quietly by our silence.



Blog PostCourtsSex OffenseStatutes and Legislation
Support the cause

We've Been Restoring Justice for More Than 40 Years

Your donation helps Prison Fellowship International repair the harm caused by crime by emphasizing accountability, forgiveness, and making amends for prisoners and those affected by their actions. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results are transformational.

Donate Now