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Restorative Justice helps heal the wounded

  • February 9, 2023

After many years of clergy sexual abuse survivors only finding support for their healing outside of the Church community, Good Samaritans within the Church are approaching victims to help them bandage their wounds.

One American group of such Good Samaritans reached out to survivors and hosted several Healing Circles based on Restorative Justice principles. 

In an e-mail interview, Bill Casey, a Restorative Justice practitioner for more than 15 years, provided an explanation of what this group did, the challenges they faced and the good that came out of their efforts.

Bill Casey, a life-long Catholic, felt a call to action after January 2002 upon reading the Boston Globe’s series about the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese. Since then, he has interacted with hundreds of survivors and given presentations at conferences, including Boston College’s “Church in the 21st Century” and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Casey has practiced Restorative Justice primarily within schools and juvenile courts in his local area of Northern Virginia.

Along with other Good Samaritans in the United States, Casey offered Healing Circles through an initiative called Broken Vessels, based on the Restorative Justice model of healing, involving repairing harm and restoring relationships in the community. According to Casey, Restorative Justice “derives from the way in which Indigenous people around the globe addressed harm that arose within their communities. Then as now, it typically leads to outcomes that repair the harm and restore relationships in the community.”

Over four years, Broken Vessels hosted 12 Healing Circles in Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Northern Virginia, Omaha and Santa Monica.

Healing Circles address important topics in a way that respect the deep needs of all participants. In these nearly day-long conversations, those harmed directly and indirectly by clergy sexual abuse are invited to share the particular form of harm they experienced with the other members of the circle, through a series of questions posed by the facilitators.

These facilitators are specifically trained in Restorative Justice principles and practices and particularly in circle facilitation. They prepare participants in advance of the Healing Circle to clarify expectations around participation. Casey said the pre-circle conversations with facilitators were meant to gauge whether the person was a likely fit for the process, being able “to share their experiences and hear those of others without causing more harm.” About a week after the circle, the facilitator would call each of the participants to check in with them to see how they were doing after engaging in this experience.

Challenges to setting up these Healing Circles included the reluctance some people felt about uncomfortable conversations. Others wouldn’t risk a model of conversation unfamiliar to them. A number of diocesan representatives resisted opening their doors to this particular initiative, although their group was warmly welcomed by the pastor of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston who generously offered his site for three of the Healing Circles.

Those who did participate in the Healing Circles provided extremely positive feedback. Some returned for a second Healing Circle experience. According to Casey, all participants “reported immediately at the conclusion of their Healing Circle and usually in an e-mail survey 7-10 days later that their experience nurtured them, enabled them to begin or continue in their journey of recovery, and gave them hope that some within the Church cared about their needs.”

Casey would encourage Church leaders to offer Healing Circles or other forms of healing to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, who are often alienated from their faith experience. However, he cautions it is essential that those attempting to offer such initiatives have the training and experience to do so and that every Healing Circle “needs to include as a participant someone trained in responding to trauma since conversations of this kind can trigger a participant’s deep pain. As with any service offered to those harmed, the aim should always seek to meet their needs and expectations without doing further harm.”

Casey says the best advice he ever received about responding to the needs of survivors was that they mainly needed to be listened to and believed. An unfortunate mistake made by many well-intentioned people is to start with their own assumptions and push their own solutions at survivors. Instead, they should look to survivors themselves to communicate their needs.

(Lea Karen Kivi is the President of Angela’s Heart Communications and the author of Abuse in the Church – Healing the Body of Christ and A Survivor’s Journey Through the Bible.)

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