Prison ministers seek ways to heal victim, offender
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Charlie Davenport thanked everybody sitting at his table. Then he thanked the next table, and the table after that.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Sister Rose McLarney leads group discussion during a Nov. 7 workshop on prison ministry at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in St. Joseph.
Seated there were Catholic prison ministry veterans like Rita Flynn, head of Catholic Charities’ “Turn Around” program for ex-offenders, and “retired” Father Ernie Gauthier, who has spent chunks of his priestly career counseling inmates and ex-offenders.
Charlie told the 50 people at a Nov. 7 Prison Ministry workshop, sponsored by the diocesan Criminal Justice Committee and Human Rights Office, that through the advocacy of the people he just thanked, he received a piece of paper in September with Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature, attesting that he had successfully completed his parole, a few years after his release from prison after nearly 18 years behind bars.
He put the certificate in a paper shredder, he said.
“I don’t need a piece of paper around reminding me of what I did and what I was,” Charlie said.
“They (the prison system) had half my life. I’m going to do something with the other half,” he said.
Charlie is an example of restorative justice, a concept in practice in Europe for decades, and now gaining momentum in the United States prison system.
In prison, Charlie had to face the harm his crime did to real human beings, not just faceless people he’d never meet. It changed his life, he said.
“I once saw nothing wrong with being a criminal, but you have to change your thinking,” Charlie said. “Even if you are a successful criminal, you are going to pay for it either in this life or the next.”
Charlie now holds down a construction job and attends college at night. He is now a senior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, with plans of entering law school.
“I am a miracle of this program,” he said.
Sister of St. Joseph Rose McLarney, who facilitated the day-long workshop at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in St. Joseph, told the priests, deacons and lay people assembled, many of whom were already deeply involved in ministry in county jails and state prisons located in the diocese, that restorative justice is a tough sell against the public’s “get tough on crime” attitude.
“The retributive justice system is based on punishment — the state arrests, convicts and sentences an offender and that’s it,” she said.
“In restorative justice, the focus is on the people who have been harmed, rather than on the state,” Sister Rose said. “Restorative justice creates an obligation. If I have harmed someone, I have an obligation to look at that harm and see the healing that needs to take place.”
That is hardly “soft on crime,” she said.
“Restorative justice doesn’t let people off the hook,” Sister Rose said. “It is not soft on crime, but it does make a difference.”
Perhaps the biggest difference, she said, is in the healing it offers to the victims of crime.
“In restorative justice the central focus is on the victim, and the victim is involved in the whole process,” Sister Rose said. “The effort is to make things right as much as possible.”
Father Gauthier said he has facilitated several meetings between offenders and victims as the victims tell the offenders exactly how the crimes they have committed have damaged their lives as part of their own healing process.
He recalled a “classic case” of an ex-Marine working as a gunsmith and dealer who had a group of teens break into his home while he was away and attempt to steal guns. Before they could get out of the house, nine police squad cars and 20 officers were waiting for them, called by the automatic alarm system.
Father Gauthier said he worked with juvenile justice judges on alternative sentencing provisions that would have young offenders repay, often through labor, for the damage they caused.
When he brought one of the young burglars together with the gunsmith he tried to rob, “Guess what happened?” Father Gauthier asked, non-rhetorically.
“The kid agreed to mow (the gunsmith’s) lawn once a week,” he said. “Then the gunsmith had to leave town, and he asked the kid to watch the house for him. And the next time he had to leave town, he gave the kid the keys.
“The kid wound up working for him and became a gunsmith,” Father Ernie said.
Others active in prison ministry told of the vital role that a religious and spiritual awakening can have in helping offenders realize that they hurt real people.
Gail Kincaid, who helps conduct Residents Encounter Christ (REC) three-day retreats for inmates, said she has seen attitudes start to change in just those three days.
Particularly touching, she said, is when inmates are given cards, made anonymously by the children attending St. Joseph’s Catholic schools, telling the inmates that the children are praying for them.
“There really is a transformation,” she said.
But funding to support prison ministry programs, particularly at the state level, is growing scarce, Sister Rose said.
“Missouri has begun to offer victim-offender dialogues, and it is something that is first requested by the victim,” she said. “But they now have more requests than they can accommodate, and with all the budget cuts, it’s not encouraging that they will expand this in the near future.”
Information about restorative justice in Missouri can be found at www.morjc.org.