Reflections on a Year as Liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing

July 1, 2020 marked the one-year anniversary of my appointment as Liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. This date also marked 15 years that I have served as a pastor in the archdiocese. I see so many bridges between the work of restorative justice and the ministry of pastor – both are rooted in the healing mission of Jesus Christ and the call to accompany and serve those in need.

The role of liaison for restorative justice and healing arose out of mutual discernment with Archbishop Hebda and the response to a personal call to become more involved in restorative justice in response to the twin crises of clergy abuse and coverup. In my role, I work side by side with my colleague Paula Kaempffer who serves as Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention in the archdiocese. We have been privileged to work with and benefit from the wisdom of a restorative justice working group, comprised of a number of folks, including three victim-survivors.

It would be a significant understatement to say that the first year serving as liaison surpassed my highest expectations and was a source of great personal blessing. More importantly, I am hopeful and ever confident in God’s grace that true healing and restoration occurred these past months through the programming that we led and the people we met. The gracious people our team met these past months – survivors, advocates and parishioners – are the true heroes who live their lives with hope and tell their stories with courage and grace. They have been our wise teachers about the nature of harm, desire for justice and hope for healing.

It is indeed humbling that God is using restorative practices to heal the wounds that many people carry throughout their lives. God who loves us beyond our imagining, always seeks our good and healing. I have been heartened to learn that restorative justice, especially as informed by biblical and Catholic theology, is consistent with God’s goodness and desire for human flourishing.

As a snapshot, in the past year I led or co-led restorative justice programming in twelve parishes, spanning four dioceses. Most of this programming took place as part of a preaching weekend where I would preach at most or all of the Masses. These weekends would often include listening sessions or healing circles where Catholics were invited to tell their stories and speak their minds as to how the clergy abuse crisis has affected them. As I write this, so many stories come to mind – stories of harm and struggle and stories of hope and healing. These listening sessions were powerful indeed as those in attendance laid bare their hurt as well as their desire for greater accountability and integrity in the Catholic Church.

I would like to briefly mention a few quick stories that were impactful and confirming of the good that restorative justice can bring. On our very first trip in July of 2019 one man looked intently at me and said with passion, “Father, there can be no restorative justice without accountability.” At a suburban parish in the Twin Cities, a man came up to me and with both pain and hope to convey that hearing the song the Canticle of the Turning in the midst of the crisis, occasioned deep emotion and tears. At the Indian Mission in Fort Yates ND, I learned from the pastor that children as young as preschool learn to respond to conflict by passing a peace rose as a way of telling their story. Finally, at the conclusion of two intense days of restorative justice programming in the hard hit diocese of Wheeling, West Virginia, a mother of seminarian who was the victim of abuse, said in response to the restorative process, “we finally have hope.”

The last two events of my first year as liaison utilized livestreaming, which is now so integral to these days amidst the global pandemic. In late June, I preached on restorative justice at St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael, MN and assisted my colleague Paula Kaempffer in leading a healing circle after one of the Masses. I include that homily here as an example of my approach to restorative justice and the enhancement that restorative justice gains from biblical and Catholic theology. I conclude the homily by suggesting that restorative practices are tailor made to help heal the harm that has occurred from COVID as well as the deep harm that has occurred from persistent racial injustice that continues to afflict people of color and this nation.

I am hopeful for the year to come as we continue to explore the power of restorative justice to promote accountability and healing.