Explainer: What Is Restorative Justice, And How Can It Help Heal the Catholic Church?

Restorative justice is often discussed as one of many tools to address the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. Retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, an expert on restorative justice practices, believes strongly that they can be key in healing the Church. 

Geske (pictured above) was initially skeptical about such practices, worried that they might re-traumatize crime victims. That changed about 30 years ago, when, as a circuit court judge, she visited the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) “to see firsthand where I was sending people.” Her visit coincided with a three-day restorative justice circle, in which about 30 incarcerated men spent time listening to and dialoguing with crime survivors. “It was just a transformative experience,” Geske says. She was so convinced by the power of this process that she ended up running the GBCI restorative justice program for years. 

Ultimately, Geske helped establish and lead the Restorative Justice Initiative at Marquette University Law School, designed to “support survivors and communities in the process of healing from the effects of crime.” (When Geske retired from Marquette in 2014, the initiative was absorbed into other academic programs.) She currently works with the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, which adopted a restorative justice approach after two settlement agreements with the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in the aftermath of sexual abuse and leadership failures in that archdiocese. 

What is Restorative Justice?

Geske describes it as “a philosophical process to address harm.” The restorative justice model is often represented as a triangle, with the survivor at the top, the community at a bottom corner, and the perpetrator of harm at the third corner. 

What Are the Three Questions? 

The restorative justice process involves asking—and working to answer—three fundamental questions. 

1. Who was harmed by what happened? The process begins by focusing on the real harm experienced by victim-survivors, but expands from there. “I always talk about the ripples that flow out from the survivors,” Geske says, to their family and loved ones, and the surrounding community where the harm took place. 

2. What was the harm committed? To identify the harm, the restorative justice process relies on storytelling by those affected, Geske explains. The survivor has the opportunity to share their experiences with the person or institution that committed harm. “It’s an opportunity to describe how it’s impacted their lives, their family’s lives, their work, whatever it is,” Geske says. 

3.  What are we going to do to work on repairing the harm? “The third question is really the heart and soul of restorative justice,” Geske says. “It may be specifically looking at what the perpetrator or offender can do, but it might also be looking at what we the community can do to help repair some of the harm that’s been done to the survivor and the community.” Geske emphasizes that repairing and healing are always ongoing processes, not discrete events. She uses the example of a woman whose husband, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. The wife might gradually move toward healing, but her husband’s death means that her life is changed forever. 

What Happens at Restorative Justice Gatherings?

Restorative justice principles can be applied in multiple settings, including dialogues between a single survivor and offender, or between an abuse survivor and a representative of the Church. These involve extensive prep work with participants before the main dialogue, and to be effective, they must be led by a highly skilled facilitator, Geske explains. 

“Healing circles” are another restorative justice practice, based on Native American tradition, which are often used to address broader questions. For example, Geske has facilitated healing circles about the abuse crisis at multiple Catholic parishes, particularly in the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis. During these 90-minute sessions, “people can genuinely talk about how they have been impacted by what’s happened in the Church,” she says. This story-sharing builds community, and “people find that they’re not alone in their feelings, that other people are suffering with this as well.” Being heard and understood can nudge participants toward thinking about solutions.

Why Did Geske Decide to Apply These Practices to the Abuse Crisis?

Geske, who is Catholic, remembers that as a wave of abuse cases became known in the early 2000s, some fellow Catholics expressed anger toward abuse survivors. “People would say ‘Why don’t they just get past it? Why are they still pushing this? Don’t they see what they’re doing to the Church?’” Geske recalls. “By that time I’d worked with a lot of survivors, and thought: If you could hear survivors tell their stories and talk about the impact of what happened over their lives, you’d understand why they’re not ‘getting over it.’”

To give Catholics a way to hear survivor stories, Geske made a 2009 documentary called The Healing Circle, now available on YouTube. It featured footage of a healing circle she led, which included four survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church, a psychologist who worked with clergy who had committed abuse, a priest who had abused a child, a priest who served on the review board for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, a woman who had left the Church over the abuse crisis, and a woman “who was still hanging on as a Catholic but deeply disturbed by the abuse crisis,” Geske says. The film was shown at Marquette University and several local parishes, and has been screened by groups all over the world. More recently, Geske helped develop a shorter film of the restorative justice work in the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, which is available here.  

How Do Restorative Justice Circles Affect Parishes? 

“These circles ignite some people in the parish to find ways to be actively attentive to the issues of clergy sexual abuse,” Geske says. She recalls that after one healing circle, a pastor created a box where parishioners placed written descriptions of how the abuse crisis has affected them personally, and the box was placed on the altar during Lent. Many parishes add a prayer for abuse survivors in the intercessions at Mass. Geske also hopes the circles help parishes to respond compassionately when people report abuse. For example, too many Church leaders tell survivors they must forgive their abusers, Geske says. “Nothing sends a survivor out the door faster than someone telling them what they need to do,” she adds.  

What Are the Obstacles to Implementing Restorative Justice in the Church?

Geske says that resistance among Church leaders to openly discussing the abuse crisis can be a roadblock. “There’s this sense that, ‘We’re done with this, let’s move on,’” she explains. “But people in the pews are sitting there angry, and numbers keep falling in the Church and they wonder why.” As difficult as it can be to get leaders and others to participate in healing circles, “once they come, they’re always glad they did.” 

Limits in personnel and funding are another problem. Restorative justice techniques require well-trained facilitators who have time to work with and prepare survivors and perpetrators before they meet, ensuring that all participants are in the right frame of mind. “You don’t want a Jerry Springer event,” Geske says. She adds that given the time and expertise involved, it helps if facilitators can receive at least small payments for their labor. 

What Can Catholics in the Pews Do to Address the Abuse Crisis?

Geske has come to believe that Catholics need to raise their voices, and let leaders know when they have concerns about any topic. She sees the need for more lay involvement, greater involvement by women, and even letters written to your bishop. “A core group of people who are invested in these issues” can help build restorative justice movements in their dioceses, she says. “It’s about using your voice however you think is appropriate.” 



—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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