Late last week I was cleaning out my office at Peterborough Reintegration Services (PRS) when I found a crucifix that I hadn’t seen in some time. PRS is a restorative justice-based not-for-profit in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, which works with federal offenders making the transition from prison to the community. Having worked with PRS for nearly ten years, I have served for the last three as the organization’s Executive Director. PRS has two main programs: Haley House, a 10-bed community residential facility for offenders with healthcare issues or at end of life; and Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), a program focused on making communities safer through work with high risk sex offenders released from prison.

cosaAs part of the work at Haley House, PRS staff often organize and attend the memorials for clients who pass away while receiving support from the organization. One client, Craig*, had come to us with late stage lung cancer in 2009. Receiving his cancer diagnosis while living at Canada’s now closed Kingston Penitentiary, PRS was asked to support him because of our unique ability to meet his healthcare needs as well as manage the risk he posed to the community as a sexual offender through the CoSA program. While receiving superior care in the community, Craig’s cancer went into remission after his release from prison. However, by late 2010 he was given a terminal diagnosis and passed away in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The crucifix I came across last week had adorned Craig’s casket and, as I was the only Catholic in an organization with evangelical roots, after Craig’s funeral the priest asked me if I wanted to keep it.

Craig was one of more than ten children born to a Canadian Irish Catholic family in a small town. When his father died tragically, Craig and some of his brothers and sisters were sent to live in an infamous Canadian orphanage that was operated by a Roman Catholic religious order. There Craig and his brothers were brutally sexually assaulted countless times throughout their childhood and youth. One of his brothers died while at the orphanage.

In many ways, the stories of Craig’s abuse reflect those recorded in the recently released Pennsylvanian Grand Jury Report [available here] on sexual abuse by Catholic priests. I remember struggling to comprehend the extent of the abuse by priests and brothers that I learned about in Craig’s stories. As a young theology student, I had not yet fully encountered the depth of the abuse being hidden by the Church. Now, after a decade of work with sexual abusers—some of whom were clergy—I am no longer shocked.

As Craig and his brothers grew into adulthood, some of them engaged in criminal activity. They often found one another in Canadian prisons. Craig was involved in violent crime, drug crime and, most reprehensibly, the sexual abuse of his own children. While recent research has shown us that the connection between sexual abuse and becoming a sexual abuser is not as strong as commonly believed, in Craig’s life it was certainly a factor. This does not excuse his actions, but it does give us some insight into Craig and the challenges that other victims of sexual abuse may face.   

No More Victims

CoSA was started in a Mennonite Church in Hamilton, Ontario by a group of people which included pastor Harry Nigh and Toronto Community Chaplain Hugh Kirkegaard. It was created as a response to the release of serial sex offender Charlie Taylor, with the goal of keeping the community safe by holding Charlie accountable for his actions. In CoSA this is accomplished by surrounding the sex offender, referred to as the core member, with groups of 3-5 volunteers who are aware of the offender’s criminal history and committed to holding that offender accountable for his actions in the community. Today, there are CoSAs all over Canada, the US, Europe, and Australia.   

In studies in Canada, the US, and Europe CoSA has been shown to reduce the risk an offender poses to the community by 70-90%. It works because it offers a stable, pro-social environment for the offender in exchange for his participation in the program. This engagement can take several forms, but always includes full acceptance of what the core member has done, who his victims are, and the impact of his actions on those victims. It also includes a commitment to do whatever it takes to ensure that no new victims be created. In CoSA the phrase no new victims is both our goal and one of our foundational principles, directing everything we do.

For a circle to work it must be characterized by a radical form of honesty. We openly discuss what has been done, what risk factors may lead to future criminal acts, and the struggles that clients face leading offense-free lives. To an outsider, these conversations can be jarring, but they are at the heart of the work that we do. There is no room for secrecy, cover-up, or the protection of feelings. We do not ruminate over minute details that may have been missed in court proceedings or errors in the process of justice (though there are many). We take the goal of no more victims seriously, engaging with professionals in various sectors to provide the highest chance for our core members that no future offenses will occur.

Additionally, we argue that living an offense-free life is the best, and often only, way for the core member to pay reparation to the victims of sexual crime. It is often the only way to pay reparations not because more reparations are impossible, but first, because the victims have been so damaged by the offenses that further contact is not possible; and second, because Western, adversarial justice systems marginalize victims, failing to ask them what they need to heal or to provide them with the means with which to heal.    

This marginalization of victims that is common in Western justice systems has also plagued the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. As evidenced in numerous reports, the institutional church has opted to protect clergy, bishops, and its public reputation over seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse. The extent to which abuse has been hidden has reached unimaginable proportions.

But the marginalization of victims is not unique to the justice system or the institutional church. Too often, the public discussion on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has neglected victims and dissolved into a polemical culture war, with both sides condemning the other for the failure of priests, bishops, and church communities to protect children from sexual abuse. For example, the recent blaming of the sexual abuse crisis on the presence of homosexual priests with an attraction to other, consenting adults strikes researchers and practitioners in the sexual abuse field as particularly strange. Though, to note, this is not unexpected of a global Church with no credibility when it comes to dealing with sexual abusers.

On the other hand, recent calls for the resignation of bishops, while well-intentioned, may also risk the marginalization of victims who ought to be promoted as leaders in crafting a normative response to the sexual abuse crisis by the Church.  

Where victim engagement programs have been offered, they have often been at the expense of due process within the procedural justice system. At worst, some victim engagement programs run by the Roman Catholic Church have been criticized as an effort to silence victims through the offer of money in exchange for a withdrawal from criminal justice processes. In Canada, victim/offender mediation processes are available through the federal correctional system. They are initiated by the victim, managed through outside restorative-based contractors and, while rare, reports indicate that victims who take part see the process as valuable in their process of healing.

Craig’s two daughters—his victims—requested a victim/offender mediation process. During the mediation his daughters had a chance to ask questions, to express rage and sorrow, and to attempt to make sense of their complicated relationship with their father. They were able to tell Craig how what he did had destroyed parts of their lives. They also were able to tell him that in some ways they still loved him. They left with more questions than answers, I recall being told, but resolved that they had made the right decision to meet with their father, especially with his end of life approaching.    

No One is Disposable

This brings me to the second foundational principle of CoSA. While our goal is that there be no new victims of sexual abuse, we accomplish this goal with a conviction that no one is disposable. This is to say that victims, offenders, and all community members are involved in the tragedy of sexual abuse in some way, and that all parties are needed for justice and healing to occur. While nobody denies that victims and the community are part of a normative response to sexual offending, sexual abusers are often left out. This is because of the stigma commonly associated with their offenses, with media depictions of the offender as an incurable monster who ought to be cast aside for the sake of all. With great apprehension, I disagree.  

This may be the wrong time to discuss the role of sexual abusers in a shared future after sexual abuse has occurred. In fact, in a decade of public speaking about the work of CoSA I have often struggled to discuss that a centrepiece of why Circles work is that the core member, despite what he has done, is treated as a person of dignity who is worthy of a place in the community. In the face of the recent reports on sexual abuse in the Church, it may seem that this sort of statement is grossly insensitive. What makes CoSA effective when many other programs have failed, however, is the way that core members are treated. The first CoSA group in Hamilton saw the inclusion of the sex offender as an important member of the community as reflective of the Gospel call to embrace the least valued among us. While CoSA has been recreated countless times, in both ecclesial and secular settings, this approach to our core members is a non-negotiable factor of all successful Circles.

This inclusion of core members in the CoSA community comes after justice has been served. We do not welcome our core members on the pretense that they have always been upstanding members of the community, but with the knowledge that they have committed unimaginable acts, and that the only way we can ensure that these acts not be recreated is to befriend them while holding them to unwavering accountability. This is what the institutional church has missed so painfully. Instead of admitting to the extent of the damage it has perpetuated through its handling of sexual abusers, instead of insisting on accountability, the Church has preferred to attempt to uphold an inaccurate and destructive public image as a public moral authority.

Because of this failure I suggest that bishops be treated as core members, in need of support and accountability, with the same approach as used with direct abusers. In fact, I think there is a parallel here between bishops, who were aware of abuse and responsible for responding to it, and the growing number of sex offenders who have been convicted of possessing child pornography without having any direct contact with victims. With many child pornography cases, there is an attempt to distance oneself from complicity in the acts of the abuse depicted which reflects the participation in abuse by bishops. That behaviour demonstrates at best an unforgivable apathy towards victims; and at worst, it represents participation in the acts of sexual abuse through a failure to respond to them appropriately. The comparison is not without flaw, but it provides a context to determine a way to approach the role of the episcopate in this crisis where criminal justice systems are unable. We should, then, strive to hold bishops to accountability in whatever form victim-led commissions see fit, with resignations likely being an aspect of this process, but not the only measure.     

I called Craig’s family to let them know when he died. They made a request for the funeral that still surprises to me. His daughters—his victims—asked to do the eulogy. Of course, we were happy to accommodate this request. I can’t say that their eulogy provided a redemptive ending to Craig’s story in a way we might expect from a movie or a book. Instead, they were honest about the damage that their father had done to them and about their need to find some way to reconcile the many faces of their father, even if that reconciliation was incomplete. In their eulogy I heard about a person that was at one time loving, at another terrifying; at one time attentive, at another abusive; at one time fearful and finally, in his last moments, vulnerable and broken. I learned that day that it is not helpful to think of sex offenders as monsters. If we look for monsters, after all, we will miss the abuse happening right in front of us. Instead, we need to look for the brokenness and the hidden realities in our midst, with the correlating response being equally as complex.

Later, having become a father to my own daughter, I often think back on that eulogy with disbelief at the courage of these women to speak. These opportunities for victims to speak and be heard are far too few today. We need to do better as a Church. No one is disposable, not just because we believe in the dignity of each person, but because sexual abuse is all around us, and to really respond to it we need an approach that includes all people. 

No One Does This Alone

This brings me to a final point. At the funeral was a large collection of people who had known Craig in a variety of settings. His family, police, parole officers, his volunteers, my staff, and others whom I did not know. Craig’s story was not a happy one, but there was a sense that this collection of people had ensured for the last few years of his life that he remained offense-free, that no new victims were created, and in that we were able to provide the chance for Craig and his family to address in some way the damage he had done.

We cannot hope to respond to this crisis without adopting a communal approach, one that throws off the constraints of a fractured ecclesial structure in the name of honouring victims and preventing the creation of new ones. That community includes all people, and recognizes that while there are direct abusers, direct victims, and—in the instance of the Roman Catholic Church—an ecclesial structure which hid abuse from the community, we all are impacted and, in many ways, complicit in this crisis. While the abusers and the episcopate hold a level of direct accountability that the rest of us do not, that does not mean that we are not obliged to participate in the response.

In many communities sexual abuse was rumoured or known, and little was done to address it. We are all accountable for that. This is not to dilute the responsibility of those most involved, but to emphasize the need for a collective response to the sexual abuse crisis that engages in a dynamic process of community rebuilding, with the needs of the victims as the basis for this process.

No other solution, we now know, will work. 

*Names and details changed to protect the identity of clients, families, and victims.
Sources for this article: 
David Thompson and Terry Thomas. The Resettlement of Sex Offenders after Custody: Circles of Support and Accountability. Abingdon: Routledge Press, 2017. 
Michael C. Seto. Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment and Intervention. 2nd edition. American Psychological Association, 2018.     
Kate Gleeson. “The Money Problem: Reparation and Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing Program.” Current Issues in Criminal Justice 27, no. 317 (2014-2015).
Brown, Peter. “’Castrate ‘Em!’ Treatments, Cures and Ethical Considerations in UK Press Coverage of ‘Chemical Castration.’” In The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Legal and Ethical Aspects of Sex Offender Treatment and Management. Karen Harrison and Bernadette Rainey, Eds.: 130-149. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2013.
See also Gilles Mongeau, SJ, 8/19/18. “The Scandal of Sexual Abuse: A Moment of Radical Conversion for the Church” and Sarah Gregory, 8/21/18, “Without Words.”

David Byrne is a PhD candidate in Theology at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, professor of Community and Justice Services at Centennial College in Scarborough ON, and the former Executive Director for Peterborough Reintegration Services. In conjunction with his doctoral program he is also completing the Collaborative Specialization in Bioethics at the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics. He has served on a number of boards and committees, including the Ethics Committee for Canadian Mental Health Association in Haliburton, Kawartha, and Pine Ridge, and as Chair of the Board of Directors of CoSA Canada. He has an upcoming article on his research in ethical issues in the treatment of sexual offenders after their release to the community in the September 2018 issue of the American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience. He lives in Oshawa ON with his wife Nathalie and their two children, Rosalie and Edison.

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