A New Model to Deal with Crime and Its Victims Series: Forgiveness: Part 2 of a Three Part Series

By Jane Lampman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

A New Model to Deal with Crime and Its Victims Series: Forgiveness: Part 2 of a Three Part Series


Jane Lampman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Betty Menkin and her family are learning to forgive the "unforgivable." In doing so, they not only have renewed their own lives but also transformed that of the woman who wronged them.

They found the door to forgiveness and healing through a victim-

offender mediation program, an approach to criminal justice that focuses on restitution and restoration. Betty's sister, Elaine Myers, was killed by a drunk driver while heading home from a night-school class. The circle of grief - and rage - encompassed Ms. Myers's husband, her parents, three sisters and their families. It did not help that the driver, a single mother of two, had a prior drunken-driving conviction. When Myers's father, Peter Serrell, decided to try the mediation program, none of the others wanted to join in. But as the work progressed under the guidance of Marty Price of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) in Clackamas County, Ore., the entire family gradually got involved. When their session with the remorseful offender took place months later, they agreed on a program designed - while she was in prison - to free her from alcohol, make her a better parent, get her high school equivalency degree, and involve her in educating others on the dangers of drinking. She wrote them regularly on her progress, and they petitioned for an early parole. The process freed the family from the grip of the past. Part of a rapidly growing movement called "restorative justice," victim-offender programs show that forgiveness can play a healing role with regard to crime, enabling victims to go on with their lives and helping offenders face their actions and grapple with their futures. Emotional well-being The instances that occur in some of these programs corroborate the growing body of academic research on the power of forgiveness. Studies show that it has a marked effect on emotional well-being and aspects of physical health, as well as opening the door to sometimes remarkable instances of reconciliation. Attention is being given not only to its potential for strengthening family life, but also for community and international relations. Forgiveness is not a goal of mediation programs, nor should it be, those involved emphasize. It arises within the space provided by the process, rather than being part of the agenda. "Forgiveness has a place, but it should never be imposed, nor should someone feel under a burden to do so," says Howard Zehr, professor of sociology and restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. "Forgiveness is a gift, and when it happens, it frees people.... They talk about being in control of the experience for the first time." Kate Hunter, who was director of a VORP in Seattle for eight years, says, "I see forgiveness on a continuum - it's something one grows into, if and when you are ready." Everyone interviewed cautioned that they have seen well-intentioned people, whether family members or clergy, push victims too quickly to forgive. While there have always been individuals, often with strong religious convictions, who were moved to forgive those who committed crimes against them, the system doesn't make it easy. "When you look broadly at the criminal-justice system, there haven't been many opportunities for forgiveness because there haven't been many opportunities for encounter," says Ron Rosenberger of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "Our present system separates people from one another." Crime is defined as an offense against the state, justice is defined as establishing blame and meting out punishment, and the process is an adversarial one, Dr. Zehr says. It tends to reenforce the hostility resulting from the crime. (Zehr wrote "Changing Lenses," (Herald, 1990) one of the most influential books on restorative justice.) "The fundamental problem is that it leaves the victim out and it doesn't hold the offender accountable in the sense of understanding the harm they've caused and taking responsibility for it," he says. …

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