What is restorative justice and does it work?

‘They can still smell the perpetrator, they can still see the saliva at the edge of his mouth, they can still feel the hand on them’

The concept of restorative justice focuses on the harm done to a person who is the victim of crime and how he or she might be healed, whereas the judicial system tends to focus on the offender, on blame and punishment.

Restorative justice puts the harmed person at the very centre of the process. The perpetrator is given the opportunity to take part voluntarily, to meet his or her victim and understand the damage they have done. In successful instances, this can greatly assist healing where the victim is concerned.

There can be a problem where the perpetrator of the crime is deceased, as with the many child sex abuse cases at leading schools which have attracted such attention in recent weeks. However, in these instances the agency responsible for those perpetrators/abusers – the relevant religious congregation – can be held responsible.

In a restorative justice context, they act in lieu of “the criminal”, if you like, and agree to meet the man or woman abused as a child.

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Restorative justice does not work for everyone. It needs to be entirely voluntary and the perpetrator/or those acting in lieu must admit the crime.

‘When I walked out of that room, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt elated. I felt absolutely and utterly empowered’

An example of what can be involved was relayed at a webinar on February 22nd last, held to mark the European Day for Victims of Crime, organised by the national Crime Victims Helpline and other support organisations.

Ailbhe Griffith, who was sexually assaulted in Dublin in 2005, told of the benefits of meeting the man who attacked her by way of a structured restorative process.

The assault lasted an hour and she felt he was “capable of killing me”. Young men came on the scene and apprehended the man.

Informal process

After he was jailed, she was left feeling that the criminal justice process “wasn’t about me, it was about the crime”. When the man was on supervised release, she requested a meeting with him by way of the restorative justice system.

She got no rational answer from the man as to why he had attacked her, but she said the process was helpful and made her less afraid of the attacker. “When I walked out of that room, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt elated. I felt absolutely and utterly empowered.”

At a press conference in Dublin on Wednesday of last week, the Spiritan congregation and four men who had been abused at their Willow Park junior school and Blackrock College, launched a restorative justice programme for survivors of historical abuse at institutions run by the congregation.

An expert in the area, Tim Chapman, has been appointed to lead the programme. It was, he said, “an informal process which allows somebody who has been harmed to engage in dialogue with the person or the body they say is harming them”. It “requires a confidential process, it’s totally voluntary for both sides. It only works if both sides want to go ahead with it.”

‘The actual nature of the abuse is depressingly similar but the impact on them, their stories, are all unique to them as individuals’

It means survivors “have an opportunity to meet the other side who they may hold responsible for being part of their harm and to tell their story”.

Meetings with the Spiritans were “set up at the victim’s convenience”. He had been addressing the issue since September of last year and had met 19 former students of Willow Park and Blackrock College. “All different, all had been abused. The actual nature of the abuse is depressingly similar but the impact on them, their stories, are all unique to them as individuals.”

Nine of the men had restorative meetings with Spiritain provincial Fr Martin Kelly, safeguarding officer Liam Lally and the principals of Blackrock and Willow Park.

After introductions “and sort of grounds that people be respectful, I invite the victim to speak”, said Chapman.

‘Graphic detail’

They would say “in often graphic detail what happened to them. And the extraordinary thing is that they remember it as if it was yesterday. And we are talking about things that may have happened 40, maybe more than 40 years ago,” he said.

“They can still smell the perpetrator, they can still see the saliva at the edge of his mouth, they can still feel the hand on them. It’s very difficult to listen to. And then they would talk about the impact it has had on their lives. That varies again. Some of them, on the surface you’d think are very, very successful people but underneath they’re still carrying a very hurt 12-year-old child inside them and it’s really quite moving to hear how they have been carrying that, that pain for most of their lives.”

And there was “a certain anger that it’s taken them so long for them to have the opportunity to speak about it. So they speak and then I invite the Spiritans to respond.”

Chapman continued: “I must say Liam and Martin have responded with great compassion. They have believed the stories, which is very important because some of these individuals told the story when they were kids and were not believed. So it’s important to be believed. They have apologised, they say what happened to you is indefensible [and] we’re very sorry,” he said.

‘Quite often it’s symbolic to them. They need to feel that something has been paid back for the suffering that they have experienced’

Some of the survivors asked “for a written apology” or “for financial support for therapy”. Sometimes they asked “for some sort of compensation. Quite often it’s symbolic to them. They need to feel that something has been paid back for the suffering that they have experienced”.

Chapman was “so impressed by the people who have come forward”. To him, “they are heroes that Blackrock should be proud of as much as their sporting heroes, their political heroes, their business heroes. These people show huge, huge courage and huge honesty.”

For their part, the Spiritans had responded “with great compassion and great commitment”, he said. “They’ve listened. It must be really hard to listen to these stories about harm that has taken place in a school or a religious congregation that you’ve been devoted to all your life. It’s a very hard thing to hear but they’ve done it and I think it has helped them in some ways as well.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times