top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

January 16, 2024: Restorative Justice elevates the voices of those who've been most directly affected by violence

Tuesday, January 16, 2024: Restorative Justice elevates the voices of those who've been most directly affected by violence

How do we deal with crime? To often it's all about an adversarial system of justice that lacks compassion or understanding. People are brought to court and are represented by lawyers who do all the talking. Punishment is dealt out and people go their separate ways, never to see each other again -- never answer the questions that remain in our minds: How did I become a target? Why me - why you? How long will I carry the memory of the crime? Is this the best the justice system can do?

Many people understand that the crime and punishment system doesn't work to restore the relationships that are so vital to creating and maintaining healthy communities. For the past several years Nancy, Bob and I have been involved in a process called restorative justice -- a practice that brings together those who have been harmed with the people who have caused the harm. It's a slow process as each person is encouraged share what happened from their own perspective. The victimizer is forced to admit the harm they caused and then to listen to each victim. We offer our comments as representatives of the wider community.

I've been in circles where two young men were confronted by homeowners who suffered a break in. Or a middle aged woman who slashed the tires of her lesbian neighbors. A young teenager who pulled a fire alarm in school and witnessed the fire department responding with sirens blaring and lights flashing.

How can we as a community listen to each other with respect and deep understanding? Can you imagine if we could sit in circles with those who have harmed us?

Here's a reflection from a person deeply involved in restorative justice who sees a parallel with the process of the Synod.

How restorative justice and synodality can help the church heal




Both synodality and restorative justice encompass a vision and a process for journeying together amid woundedness and division. Both aim to leverage the power of deep listening, authentic dialogue, and radical truth-telling to illuminate a path toward communion and, ultimately, healing.


Now is the time for the church to recognize and embrace the synergistic relationship between synodality and restorative justice, because though the 2023 Rome-based assembly has ended, the work of the synod is far from over. Engaging restorative justice now — putting to use its time-tested principles and practices in our parishes and ministries — can help us become the listening, reconciling church we are called to be.


Though not regularly expressed in these terms, the synod on synodality is fundamentally a response to harm in the church. Injustices like clergy sexual abuse, clericalism, polarization and marginalization loomed large on the docket in Rome.


Similarly, a recent restorative justice conference in Minneapolis looked at four specific areas of harm:

  • injustice in the criminal legal system,

  • clergy sexual abuse,

  • racial injustice,

  • and harms against Native peoples.


In all these spheres, the church has been responsible for varying degrees of inflicting harm, perpetuating it, concealing it, or looking the other way.


Restorative justice is an approach rooted in exactly the kind of repair Pope Francis speaks about. Where more "traditional" notions of justice might focus on a specific law or rule that was broken and how to punish the responsible party, restorative justice seeks to identify the harm, to understand its impact, and to discern what can be done to put things more right.


Restorative justice processes come in various forms, but they all share a common aspect: elevating the voices of those who've been most directly affected. During the restorative justice conference, every plenary session included people who were impacted by the harm in question.


Monique Maddox was one of these courageous witnesses. A lifelong Catholic and a descendant of enslaved individuals who were once owned and sold by the Jesuit order, she now leads a nonprofit representing thousands of these descendents of Jesuit enslavement. "As descendants, we went to the Jesuits," Monique recalled during a plenary session on racial injustice. "We went to those who harmed our families and we said, 'You taught us this faith, you taught us this religion. … We're not going away. We're here to stay. We're here to speak, and we want to be the people who are naming how we're going to be satisfied.' "


The conference also underscored the grave repercussions of failing to listen to survivors or silencing them entirely. During one conference panel, Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in the Chilean church and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, shared, "People have died waiting for justice. Friends of mine have committed suicide waiting for justice." Notably, the commission issued an unusually strong statement the week before, demanding greater attention from the synod to the issue of clergy sexual abuse: "No one should have to beg for justice in the Church," it implored.


The courageous truth-telling at the conference not only embodied the principles of restorative justice, it also served as a tangible expression of synodality in action. Indeed, listening to those on the margins, bearing witness to their pain, their needs, and their God-given dignity, is where the process of becoming a synodal church takes root. 


But it doesn't end there. The synthesis report published at the close of the synod captured the necessity of translating listening into meaningful action: "Openness to listening and accompanying all … has made visible many who have long felt invisible. [But] The long journey toward reconciliation and justice, including addressing the structural conditions that enabled such abuse, remains before us and requires concrete gestures of penitence."


One of these restorative practices is known as "circle process." Rooted in Indigenous peacemaking traditions, the practice involves participants coming together in a circle and, with the support of a facilitator, engaging in meaningful dialogue on a range of prompts and questions. Often I have found that circle process allows us to slow down enough, to listen closely enough, that room is created for the Holy Spirit to enter in and illuminate a new way forward.


"If we desire for our parishes and communities to embrace synodality more fully, we should look to restorative practices, which seamlessly lend themselves to fostering the very 'conversations in the Spirit' that the synod has called for."


Restorative practices are already gaining traction in Catholic communities. Some have started using circle process as a means to foster community and address polarization, like in the Archdiocese of Chicago, where parishes have organized talking circles to engage in conversations about racial justice. Similarly, parishes like Our Lady of the Holy Cross in Baden, Missouri, have employed a circle process structure to hold discussions about the weekly Sunday Gospel.


Throughout the centuries, the church has demonstrated that it is capable of inflicting immense harm, but we must remember that we, the body of Christ, also have incredible potential for atonement and repair. To engage in synodality and restorative justice is to take responsibility of what is ours to do in the work of transforming the church from "wounder" to "healer," just as it was commissioned by Christ to be.


Restorative justice teaches us to embrace unfinished endings, recognizing that healing is an ongoing journey. In the words of Pope Francis, "Today we do not see the full fruit of this process, but with farsightedness we look to the horizon opening up before us."

Excerped from National Catholic Reporter

by Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy:

She serves as the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice. She has more than 25 years of experience working in national faith-based policy advocacy organizations including Bread for the World and Witness for Peace.

Link to the article in NCR:

9 views0 comments


bottom of page