Restorative Justice Conference: Keeping the Victims Foremost

The eight-year-old who wasn’t there: That was one of the most important people involved in last week’s impressive two-day conference at Eckstein Hall on dealing with clergy sex abuse scandals.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, the Most Reverend Diarmuid Martin, brought the eight-year-old into the conference.

Of course, no children were literally present. But Archbishop Martin, who has attracted substantial international attention for his strong stands in the aftermath of large-scale scandals in Dublin, recounted how he had a bit of time before a program at a school he was visiting. The principal asked if there was anything he wanted to see. He said he wanted to visit a class of eight-year-olds.

The reason, he said, was that he wanted to look at their faces and underscore in his own mind their images. When people deal with issues related to the scandals, they tend to see the victims as the adults they are when what happened to them comes to light, the archbishop said. He said, “It is important to see the face of eight-year-old.”

When dealing with the issue of sex abuse, it is the images of the victims, both as children and adults, that should come to mind first, not the images of clergy members or the situation of the church overall, Martin said.

That was one of the key messages of the conference, “Harm, Hope, and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Scandal.” The sessions, the Law School’s annual Restorative Justice Initiative conference for this year, brought together experts from around the world and attracted wide attention, particularly in the Catholic press.

Martin was forceful in describing the degree to which church leaders in Ireland had allowed abusive situations to fester. Numerous priests victimized thousands of children, he said, while church leaders either turned blind eyes or responded ineffectively. For example, he recounted how one priest had a swimming pool where he took children. Other children would make fun of those children, he said, while the situation continued for years. “The children on the street knew, but those in charge seemed not to notice,” he said. “The Archdiocese of Dublin got it spectacularly wrong.”    

During a panel discussion of victims and relatives of victims, a Milwaukee-area woman whose son committed suicide years after being abused by a priest, said, “I have a real problem that there haven’t been consequences for priests who abuse children.” Her son’s abuser was transferred to another school, she said, and church leaders in general have often treated abusers too gently. “There has to be more accountability,” she concluded.

Marie Donahue, retired deputy superintendent of the Boston Police Department and a survivor of abuse herself, said, “Do something.” Stop being sorry for the priests who are perpetrators, she said, and “stop being so gentle with them.”

Church leaders who took part in the conference generally agreed that stronger stands need to be taken to assure that the Catholic Church does what is right and moral.

“If we don’t get this right, we might as well close up shop” in terms of  moral authority, said the Most Reverend Blase J. Cupich, Bishop of Spokane and chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Protection of Children and Young People.  Cupich said the stories told by victims “touched us a very soul-searching level.”

The risk before the church now, he said, is complacency or even regression after years of revelations about clergy abuse. The church, he said, should “always go back to the most visceral level” of reacting to how terrible abuse is when determining what actions to take.  It must demonstrate that it is keeping its promises to deal strongly with ending abuse.

Ian Elliott, chief executive officer of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland, said, “If you safeguard the children in the church, you will safeguard the church itself.”

Janine P. Geske, distinguished professor of law at the Law School and the central figure in organizing the conference, said at the end of the two days that when you truly hear what is being said by victims and those trying to help heal the damage that abuse has done, “it’s a holy moment.”

By that definition, the two days were full of holy moments that carried with them renewed commitment to hope and healing.

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