Resolving Child Abuse through Restorative Justice

This piece was written as a response to last month’s Editorial in which it was argued that the Roman Catholic Church had to re-establish trust as a child care provider by showing that it had genuinely listened to the victims who had been abused while in the Church’s care. Click here to read the Editorial or Noel Howard’s article on recent events in the Republic of Ireland.The problems of the Roman Catholic Church regarding child abuse (Editorial, August 2011) are part of a wider problem for victims and abusers.

Sex offenders overwhelmingly repent and show remorse and victims overwhelmingly say that they want material and emotional restoration for what they have suffered. However, in seeking to protect itself, the church denied many priests the opportunity to apologise to their victims and offer them the restoration they desired.

In the Clapham and Cumbria rail crashes the immediate apologies by British Rail and Network Rail respectively defused the potential anger of victims; had the Roman Catholic Church allowed those priests who wished to apologise to do so immediately, the Church would have set an example which could have been followed across the world.

Of course, a minority of sex offenders do deny their offences and there are cases like the group of Catholic priests in Canada who were innocent. But, had the Roman Catholic Church allowed the vast majority of cases to be dealt with through a restorative process, they would then have had the resources to deal with the minority of more difficult cases and people would have been more likely to trust them with the difficult cases because they had dealt with so many other cases appropriately.

In New Dawn or False Dawn in Ireland, Noel Howard raises the issue of granting confidentiality to child victims, because many ‘child protection’ practitioners argue that child abuse should always be reported to the authorities.

However, child abuse victims are overwhelmingly victims of abuse by a family member (sexual abuse by priests and others in positions of authority only accounts for 2% of all child sexual abuse) and, as the Acting Reporter in the Orkney scandal pointed out, most children want the abuse to stop. They do not want their family or their family member to be dragged through the courts.

The requirement to report abuse to the authorities acts as a disincentive to disclosure for many child victims because they see the demonisation that takes place and they do not want that to happen to their family or family member. So neither child victim nor abuser have an opportunity to enter into any sort of restorative process whereby the one can apologise and the other can, if they wish, offer forgiveness.

In other words the effect of the Roman Catholic Church covering up abuse and of the secular authorities’ demands for it to be disclosed is the same: both the organisational cover-up and criminal justice processes stop any dialogue between victim and abuser other than in the adversarial context of a court room and deny the victim the opportunity to receive the material and emotional restoration from the abuser in a context in which they feel comfortable.

Obviously, there would have to be some protocols for handling disclosures. Restorative justice organisations would need a mechanism, for example, for dealing with disclosures that were not then disclosed to the authorities, if they were to avoid creating another mechanism for cover-ups. But, if people are really concerned about the interests of child victims, some thought needs to be given to this.

My guess is that such a provision would not have any impact in the current climate because child victims would still be afraid of disclosing for fear of demonisation; but once a more measured attitude had evolved on the part of all concerned, it could create an opportunity for more victims to receive the material and emotional restoration most desire.

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