14/11/05 Irish Prisoners Overseas

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Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

14th November 2005

I am happy to be with you at this celebration of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, even if I come as your proceedings draw to a close.  Your work has brought a vital injection of care and human warmth into the lives of many people, prisoners and their families, over these past twenty years.  The more global the world becomes, unfortunately, the more likely it will be that your work will become more and more a necessity.

My own experience with Irish prisoners overseas goes back to the mid-1960’s when I worked, during my holidays from the seminary, in a centre for ex-prisoners in South London, and at that time Irish were over represented in the prison population.  It was a very valuable experience for me and I got a good knowledge of the sad of plight of various London prisons at that time. It was particularly sad to see a noticeable presence of one generation after another of men who had come through our Church-managed industrial schools and who had never managed to make it in life and passed from prison to prison for most of their lives.

        I suppose my lasting impression of that work was observing another modest project run by the Centre I was working with.  They rented a small shop opposite Pentonville Prison which was due for demolition and set up a centre where the wives of prisoners could come and have a cup of tea and change the babies before after visiting their men folk.

I have rarely in my life seen such a witness to marital fidelity as I saw there.  These women traipsed across London and from farther afield weekly and never missed a visiting day. They never missed their opportunity to bring a moment of support and comfort to husbands who most likely had not always been so faithful on their part.

The Gospel is quite explicit in its call to us, that we must visit Christ in prison.  It does not tell us to be interested in prison reform or to make a financial contribution for the welfare of prisoners.  It is says that Christ was in prison and that we either visited him or we ignored him.

Now it is not going to be possible for all of us to visit prisons.  So how are we to interpret the Gospel imperative?   The first thing that emerges is that we cannot simply respond that we did not know anything about people being in prison.  The Gospel itself tells us unequivocally that that is not an acceptable answer.

There is something else in the Gospel imperative.  To visit means to come close to and to get to know a person.  In that sense the Gospel imperative says that our primary concern must be about the person who is in prison precisely as person.

The person who finds himself or herself in prison remains a person.  The person is prison is deprived of his or her liberty but not of his or her dignity.  Every human person possesses an innate dignity and that dignity is not lost even when they fail, even when they offend, even if they represent wounded humanity, even when their behaviour can be justly described as depraved.

There is a remarkable expression in the inaugural address of Pope Benedict XVI which states: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.

Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.  Can we say that these words are words which have to be applied to every human being, even to the criminal, the murderer, the child molester, when we look at them in the basic humanity?

Every offender represents failure on the part of a person who was created in God’s image.  That failure may be the result of genuine malice or of human weakness or of some psychological disorder.  The justice system has the responsibility to punish criminal behaviour, to protect society from risk – especially to children and the vulnerable – but also to address the roots of such behaviour and to restore not just the harm done, but those healthy relationships which constitute the good of society.

The offender must be wherever possible brought back to wholeness as a person.  This means addressing woundedness and weakness, and where possible healing and changing persons.  The Christian message is always one that conversion is possible and that we have to use all the available human resources to ensure that such conversion is possible.

The Christian message is one which stresses not just the possibility but the desirability that the person who is wounded in his or her humanity can be lead once again to wholeness.  God desires that every human person can live their human potential for good to the fullest degree possible.
But the Christian message cannot overlook the fact that malicious or disordered human behaviour has also had effects on those who were its victims and whose humanity may also have been dramatically wounded.  This dimension cannot be overlooked.

As a Bishop I have had the experience of encountering many survivors of child sexual abuse.  I come away from such meetings moved, distressed and at times so angry.  Most of us have no idea of the hurt such people and their families have encountered.  A friend of mine said to me recently that he was stunned one evening when we met, just after I had spoken with the relatives of a survivor.  He told me that he had never before seen me so distressed and so angry.

How can we restore a proper relationship between two people, one of whom has offended and damaged another; the other who has been the victim of such hurt and suffering?  Yet there is the possibility that this could be done, that the relationship of restitution and punishment could also lead to a new relationship of harmony and forgiveness, which might result in a healing process for both and in a society which is stronger.

I must say that this is a position that I for one would love to see possible. And yet I realise that perhaps this may be just an ideal. Crimes, in addition to the specific nature, very often also represent an abuse of power.  In such a situation the person abused rightly feels that their position of vulnerability and weakness was exploited precisely by someone who has the possibility of exercising power over them. The crime constituted a betrayal of power, even a betrayed a sacred trust.

In recent years there have been many attempts to develop a form of restorative justice which attempts to do precisely, that, to restore each of the parties, the offender and the exploited, the abuser and the abused to their own full dignity as person.
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It involves a cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. Restorative justice is a values-based approach to responding to wrongdoing and conflict, with a balanced focus on the person harmed, the person causing the harm, and the broader community. Its aim is to add a new dimension to the concept of punishment.  Restorative justice focuses on transforming wrongdoing by healing the harm, particularly to relationships, that is created by harmful behaviour. Restorative justice involves the person who caused the harm, the person harmed and the affected community. By collectively identifying and addressing harms, needs, and obligations resulting from wrongdoing, it hopes to create healing and put things right again.  It aims at restoring right order in behaviour and in the relationship between people.  This is a process which is eminently in line with Christian thinking.
Restorative justice is linked with post conflict reconciliation.  It is perhaps very useful in addressing the issue of conflict in society, especially where people live close together and are part of the same community.  It addresses not just retribution but the restoration of the relations which should exist in a community
I would genuinely hope that this might be possible. But there are some circumstances which work against the possibility.  One is where the starting relationship of power is so unbalanced.  Another is where the actions took place so long ago and went on unrecognized for so long.  Another is where the offender may have continued to offend and seemed to demonstrate disregard for other people in a similar situation.
The criminal justice system may also find it hard to work towards the application of this principle especially when there are public campaigns which exploit crime or demonize offenders for political gain.

Restorative justice would have to be administered within the framework of the criminal justice system and would require significant investment and would thus have to compete for funding with other necessary parts of that system   At times when security issues are high on the agenda of the justice system then restorative justice would not fare well.

Take for example the question of sex offenders in Ireland today.  For restorative justice to take place massive investment in the treatment and assessment of sex offenders would be needed. Yet in Ireland today the situation in Ireland in this regard is dramatic.  The number of sex offenders increases yet the number of pales available for true assessment with in out correctional system is totally inadequate.  This should be looked on not just as a challenge regarding restorative justice but indeed as a child protection issue.  We have the situation which sex offenders are sent to prison but who are the returned to society without having been offered any true assistance to address their underlying problem.  These sex offenders return to the society, placed perhaps on a sex offenders list, but with no therapy over the years.  The fear and insecurity in which they live after release might indeed lead them back into devious and manipulative relationships

The ideal of restorative justice is that of restoring the original relationship of respect between people. There is a sense where this is the ideal of any system of justice.  Saint Thomas Aquinas stresses that ”even when stain of guilt has been taken away, there can remain liability not to penalty simply speaking but to reconciliation”.  The balance of justice still needs to be re-established.  He recognizes that applying the penalty alone is in itself not enough to establish that deeper reconciliation and equity which justice would require.

In Ireland the concept of restorative justice is only in its early years.  But there are sufficient experiences around the world to indicate to us that it is a possible alternative and indeed more sustainable and long lasting alternative than the current models of a justice system which stresses primarily punishment and security.

The culture of violence which seems to be growing in our society will constitute the greatest challenge to any application of restorative justice.  What can we say when we learn as we did today of another brutal, cold-blooded commissioned murder in a Dublin suburb.   Such blatant disregard for human life will have to be answered before the justice of God.   As a society also we need to a stand on this.  A concept of justice which wishes to restore harmonious relations in society is called to take a strong position against such violence which is the ultimate challenge to harmonious relations among people.  I urge anyone who has information on this to cooperate with the Gardai.  I urge everyone in the community to show their disassociation with such an abuse of humanity.