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Pursuing restorative justice amid the Church’s sex abuse crisis

Pursuing restorative justice amid the Church’s sex abuse crisis

More than 20 years after the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team uncovered a sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, serious wounds remain.

Many victim-survivors say they are still trying to heal. Some Catholics in the pews say they are still struggling to trust Church leaders. And advocates for reform say there still needs to be more accountability and transparency in the Church.

Father Daniel Griffith believes that restorative justice could be one way to pursue healing and reconciliation.

Griffith, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is the founding director of the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) at the University of St. Thomas.

The initiative, which launched last year, says it ​​”seeks to respond to harm that occurs from leadership and institutional failures, racial injustice, and polarization in a way that promotes accountability and healing.”

Charles Camosy spoke with Griffith about the foundations of restorative justice, and how it could be an important tool to bring healing to victim-survivors of sex abuse within the Catholic Church.

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So, let's start with the basics and foundations. You've done a lot of work on restorative justice. What's restorative justice?

Restorative justice is a philosophical and practical approach to harm. One of the pioneers of restorative justice, Howard Zehr, says that restorative justice is fundamentally about needs and obligations. When a person or a community has been harmed, restorative justice asks: what do they need to help heal from the harm they have experienced? Correspondingly, what can the perpetrator of harm or the community do to help repair the harm and restore justice?

Historically, restorative justice is rooted in the Indigenous practices of First Nation peoples of North America and New Zealand. When there was harm in their communities, leaders would gather in a healing circle and pass a talking piece in an attempt to repair the harm.

One of the misnomers about restorative justice is that it is focused on the perpetrator. In reality, restorative justice is victim-survivor centered, and while it can be used in some circumstances to help restore and rehabilitate the perpetrator, its fundamental orientation is toward the one who experienced harm.

One of the significant challenges with restorative justice is overcoming the knowledge gap – many people don’t know what it is or prejudge it. I was in this camp. When I first heard the term I quickly thought, ‘This sounds new age, fuzzy, and ethereal.’ The reality is the opposite. Restorative justice is very effective at repairing harm and highly adaptable to different circumstances. Beginning in the 1970s and now today, restorative justice has become a worldwide movement effectively employed across multiple disciplines and professions.

My journey into restorative justice was organic. In 2015, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) charged the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis with multiple crimes for its failure to protect children. RCAO also filed a civil petition which focused on changing the culture of the Archdiocese, consistent with public safety. John Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, included two restorative justice provisions in the settlement agreement. He intended that the archdiocese’s use of restorative justice could help bring greater healing to victim-survivors and the Catholic community of the Twin Cities, which had suffered peripheral harm from the crisis.

This led to a restorative justice pilot parish program launched in the archdiocese, which included the parish I pastored in Minneapolis. The archdiocese also created two new restorative justice positions, including a liaison for restorative justice and healing – an assignment I held from 2019-2022.

Much credit is owed to Archbishop [Bernard] Hebda who went far beyond what the settlement with Ramsey County called for. Archbishop Hebda’s embrace of restorative justice and his own humble and effective outreach to victim-survivors has been extraordinary. Personally, my work in restorative justice and my work with and alongside victim-survivors has been a great gift in my priestly ministry.

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You've been part of ongoing consultations at Notre Dame and St. Thomas on restorative justice in the context of the sex abuse crisis. Can you say something about restorative justice in this context?

In the fall of 2021 at Notre Dame and again this fall at St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, two national consultations were held which brought together approximately 25 victim-survivors, victim advocates, scholars, clergy, and psychologists. The intent of both gatherings was to explore the possibility of using truth and reconciliation processes to help name and heal the harm of clergy abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church – with a particular focus on the United States. A ton of credit needs to be given to Dr. Daniel Philpott and Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann for convening this initial consultation.

There was a strong consensus at the Notre Dame gathering that deep wounds remain among victim-survivors and broadly among Catholics and that restorative practices could be effectively used to help heal this harm.

Several of the attendees clearly said that restorative justice is much less effective if there is not greater accountability for Church leaders who have enabled or perpetuated harm.

Several attendees also noted multiple underlying ecclesial realities which have have contributed to a lack of accountability for Church leaders and a lack of compassionate care for victim-survivors, including clericalism, closed clerical structures, and, in some cases, seminary formation that does not emphasize enough, a servant-leadership model of priesthood.

Many agreed that there is more work to be done in all of these areas.

I was struck by the keynote address given by Helen Alvare, who said that our response as a Church to the harm that has been experienced by victim-survivors needs to be sourced in the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus and needs to be proportionate to the acute harm experienced.

There was further agreement among many of us gathered that our response as a Church has not been proportionate to the harm experienced by victim-survivors. Rather than “move on” as some Church leaders have suggested, our obligation in justice is to accompany our brothers and sisters who have been harmed by the Church.

As there was consensus that more work needed to be done in developing a clearer roadmap to respond to the wounds that remain, four of us met over the past several months to plan and host a second consultation at St. Thomas. My co-collaborators were Dan Philpott, Emily Ransom, and Fr. Tom Berg. This consolation took place in September and this time, included four bishops.

Again, there was strong consensus that deep wounds remain among victim-survivors and in the Church. Several ideas were floated, which included the broader use of restorative practices, to help heal the wounds that remain. We are now in the process of developing specific proposals which will be discussed and discerned by a smaller working group and then communicated in some manner to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I pray that our efforts will lead to meaningful steps toward greater accountability and healing in the Church.

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Where do you think this is ultimately headed? Do you think something like a truth and reconciliation commission is in the offing? Isn't that what victims are owed?

I don’t know where this is all ultimately heading – I think it is imperative to follow the Holy Spirit and listen to the voices of victim-survivors. I also think that some process which includes truth and healing is possible, but this will take courage, vision, resources, and intentionality. It will also require significant and ongoing consultation with victim-survivors.

Truth and reconciliation processes have been used effectively elsewhere, including in Canada in the wake of the Indian residential schools disaster. One of the recommendations that came out of that process was for the pope to come to Canada to apologize for the grave harm that occurred – harm in which the Catholic Church was complicit.

It is noteworthy that this penitential journey of Pope Francis happened after he listened to victim-survivors and was open to their needs. Those who work closely with victim-survivors know that there is need for greater healing to occur. In this work, I have been heartened that restorative justice pairs dynamically and effectively with the principles of Catholic social teaching as both are prophetic in naming and confronting harm, oriented to personal and collective flourishing, and seek to accompany those who have been harmed toward justice and healing.

I have confidence that our group will be able to offer concrete and effective proposals for greater justice and healing for victim-survivors and the Church. Whether our proposals will be effectively implemented remains to be seen.

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I suspect what the recent CUA report revealed on priest morale and the (dis)trust associated with their relationship with (some) bishops looms large here. Can you say something about this?

Yes, I was quite struck in one sense by the CUA report but also not surprised in another sense. The difference in perception between priests and bishops was particularly striking as it relates to whether a bishop would provide effective help to a priest in need of care. Priests continue to rate high on the scale of happiness and flourishing and find our work to be meaningful and life-giving. This is my experience as well. What this tells me is that the basis for concern among some priests that they will be treated unjustly in certain circumstances is not intrinsic to the nature of priesthood, but is sourced within the present culture of the Church.

The significant distrust of bishops among priests who were surveyed, and the overall assessment of bishops in the United States by the priests, points itself to a deep wound and breach that must be addressed for the good of the Church in the United States. I am hopeful that restorative practices could be used effectively to help understand the reality that priests and bishops are currently facing – in relation to each other – and help heal and restore these important relationships.

We hosted a healing circle for clergy in St. Paul and Minneapolis a few years back and it was powerful. Archbishop Hebda participated and those in the circle spoke from their heart. Restorative justice could play an important role in repairing the relationships among priests and bishops in the United States.

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The report revealed many priests are afraid of false accusations, especially because an accusation means immediate removal from ministry. I've heard priests, including priests of color, movingly share just how frightened they are to do almost any kind of ministry which would open them up to false accusation and removal.

And while we should obviously err on the side of believing victims, anyone who is honest admits that some percentage of accusations are not credible. How do you think the questions of justice play out here? Can the institutional Church adequately protect and support both victims and priests?

This last question is very important and complex. Many victim-survivors will tell you that the pain of not being believed or not having their abuse acknowledged was more acute than the initial abuse. Data shows that the incidences of false allegations of clergy abuse remain low. Notwithstanding this, fear among clergy of false allegations remains high – I believe 82% of those surveyed. This fear is understandable given our present ecclesial and societal circumstances. Additionally, I am not surprised but also saddened that clergy of color have a significant fear in this regard, as this points to how injustices experienced by people of color can lead to further marginalization and attendant fear.

There needs to be a careful balancing of the rights and interests of those who are alleging abuse and those who are alleged to have perpetrated abuse. For example, there needs to be a clear manifestation of fair and humane process for those who come forward with allegations of abuse and misconduct on the part of clergy. Similarly, there also needs to be a clear and robust manifestation of due process for clergy accused of abuse or misconduct. There is much work to be done in this regard, and this absence of clear process on both sides of allegations of abuse remains a privation of justice in too many places.

The concerns that the CUA report brought to light also reveal distrust among priests that bishops will respond justly to clergy who are accused of abuse or misconduct. In addition, there is dismay among clergy and many Catholics that priests and bishops are treated disparately in response to allegations of abuse or misconduct. This too remains a privation of justice and accountability in the Catholic Church.

Lastly, there is a pressing need for greater uniformity in the United States as it relates to Catholic safeguarding standards, transparency, terminology, training, review boards, and best practices. Much work remains to be done to become a more just, healthy, and vibrant Catholic communion in the United States. I am hopeful that we will follow the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of victim-survivors leading the way to restoration.

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