Restorative justice

Pope Francis addressed an audience of Church hierarchy gathered together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” and declared in no uncertain terms that the death penalty is “contrary to the Gospel.” The “Catechism” teaches that it is the right and duty of public authorities “to punish malefactors with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in extreme cases, the death penalty.” St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict tried to clarify this teaching, and as a result the Church currently teaches that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”

Pope Francis removed all ambiguity when he said that the death penalty was “inadmissible” and that official Catholic teaching should be changed to reflect that. This statement is going to be lauded by bishops’ conferences around the world, but condemned by 46 percent of American Catholics. Pope Francis’ rationale is grounded in the Church’s strongly-held belief in the defense of human dignity. “I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is Sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” Pope Francis said. “It must be strongly stated that condemning a person to the death penalty is an inhumane measure.” 

A 2016 Pew Research study of support for the death penalty found that those who oppose its use do not believe it is a deterrent to crime, and that there is a danger of executing an innocent person. Those who support the use of the death penalty believe that it is morally acceptable when a murder has been committed. Missing from this debate is the impact that the death penalty has on the victims of these crimes. Although there may be some immediate satisfaction that justice has been done, in what way does the death penalty help to restore the lives of the victims?

Over the past 30 years there has been a movement to reform the criminal justice system worldwide. What has resulted from this reform is the concept of restorative justice. According to the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, “Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through a cooperative process that includes all stakeholders. This can lead to the transformation of people, relationships and communities.”

The underlying principles of restorative justice are that crimes do not just break laws, they cause harm to people, relationships, and the community. The only people able to determine how to repair the harm that was done are the victim and the perpetrator of the crime. In order to accomplish restorative justice there must be agreement by the criminal and victim to meet and discuss the harm that was done and how to repair it. 

Restorative justice has been applied in the most egregious of crimes throughout the world. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when their traditional courts were decimated, the government turned to a system of justice called Gacaca. The literal translation is “on the grass,” which describes where the trial takes place. Gacaca is a restorative system which allows perpetrators responsible for crimes including isolated murder and destruction of property during the genocide to decrease their prison sentences if they plead guilty, apologize, and agree to supplement their shortened jail time with community service. A panel of judges were in place outside where the victims sat on one side facing their assailants. Those criminals who refused to admit guilt and apologize received the maximum sentence of life in prison, while others admitted the harm they caused and after serving their time, were reintegrated into their community.

Although this form of justice seems too lenient, we need only look at our own Catholic tradition for its application. Maria Goretti was a teen-age girl who lived in Italy in the early 1900s. She fought off the sexual assault perpetrated by a family friend who then brutally murdered her. Before she died she forgave her assailant, who was brought to justice and placed in prison. While he was in prison he repented of his crime after a dream in which Maria again forgave him. When he was eventually released 27 years later he went to Maria’s mother and asked forgiveness, and spent the rest of his life in a monastery. Maria Goretti was later canonized, and although she is considered the patron saint of chastity, her heroic act of forgiveness should make her the patron of restorative justice.

It does no good to simply object to the death penalty when there is no consideration given to restoring the harm that was done to the victim. Restorative justice is not tantamount to being soft on crime, but looks at crime more holistically. It is a victim-centric approach that focuses on repairing the harm done, holding the criminal accountable, and restoring the basic human dignity of both.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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