Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, seems an unlikely frequent flier to Twin Cities Catholic churches. She has been introducing them to a new method for addressing the devastating impact of clergy sex abuse through a process called restorative justice.
A philosophy of justice distinct from the crime and punishment system of courtrooms, it pulls together parties affected by a crime — including victims and their communities — and offers them a safe place and process to heal from trauma.
That’s been happening in Twin Cities churches for more than a year, said Geske. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is a national leader in using restorative justice techniques to address the lingering repercussions of clergy abuse, said Geske, who was among the panelists Friday at a symposium titled “Restorative Justice, Law & Healing” at the University of St. Thomas law school in Minneapolis.
“I used to go to mass and hear people say, ‘Why don’t they [abuse victims] just get over it?’ ” she said. “I kept thinking that if they heard the stories of survivors, they wouldn’t ask those questions.”
Building an understanding of how abuse affects victims, as well as parishes, priests and offenders, has been a goal of the sessions unfolding at area churches, Geske said. She said her programs include small group “healing circles” in which participants discuss how the clergy abuse issue has affected them.
For example, parish participants gathered in a circle may acknowledge how their faith has been shaken by the crisis. Clergy members in a circle may share how it affects their relationship with children.
Such conversations certainly don’t make the problem go away, she said. But they do allow people to give voice to feelings they might not otherwise share, and they foster an understanding of the various impacts of abuse.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi required the archdiocese to implement such restorative justice programs as part of its 2015 clergy abuse settlement with the archdiocese. The county had charged the archdiocese with failure to protect children from an abusive priest. The settlement included new protocols to prevent and address child sex abuse.
On Friday, Choi told symposium participants that he was an admirer of the process of bringing parties together to foster deeper understandings, something he felt was particularly relevant in a faith community. He said he is also implementing restorative justice in the county’s juvenile justice system.
“Sometimes better outcomes can happen when you think out of the box,” Choi said. “Victims and their families are not the only people impacted.”
Choi shared the stage with his former legal adversaries, namely the archdiocesan leaders he sued not so long ago. They included Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of safe environment.
Hebda acknowledged that he didn’t know much about restorative justice when Choi proposed implementing such programs.
“But I was intrigued about what Mr. Choi said about his experience,” Hebda said.
Frank Meuers, a Minnesota director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, took the podium at the end of the day to say that he supports restorative justice efforts but that more work needs to be done.
Meuers recalled a time when he couldn’t even meet with anyone at the chancery and was threatened with arrest when he brought in an abuse victim who wanted help. Progress clearly has been made, he said.
“We’ve got to work on this together,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Griffith, the archdiocese’s liaison on restorative justice and healing, said he and fellow St. Thomas law school Prof. Hank Shea hoped the daylong symposium would introduce the broader legal community to restorative justice and its practices, in criminal justice cases and clergy abuse cases in particular.