Archdiocese pushes for shift in approach – from
retributive justice to healing and reconciliation
The Catholic Conference of Illinois issued a document intended to educate all lawmakers, members of the Catholic Church and leading clergy as to what the Gospel calls for when it comes to justice.
Titled “A Catholic Vision for Restorative Justice in Illinois,” the report clarified the Illinois dioceses’ position regarding justice and highlighted the importance of a restorative justice approach.
Emily Cortina, director of outreach for the Illinois archdiocese’s jail ministry, known as Kolbe House, said understanding restorative justice requires new perspectives about what the justice system is.
“It shifts the mindset that’s driving the justice system from ‘What crime was committed and how will the offender be punished?’ to ‘What harm was caused and how can that harm be healed?’” Cortina said.
Mary Clare Birmingham, director of Kolbe House, said the state’s current legal system imposes punishment as retribution yet fails to create healing or true justice.
“Restorative justice is a set of principles for dealing with the harm of crime or any way we’ve harmed each other that is embodying the vision of justice that Jesus offered,” Birmingham said. “It’s justice including accountability, mercy and healing all together. It ends with the restoration of the individual to the community.”
Birmingham said that the current justice system fails to provide opportunities for directly making amends with victims or the community, and it fails to address the issues underlying the crime. “[With the current system] there’s no way forward, to go from harm to how that can be addressed and healed, and how we can be reconciled to each other.”
As part of the restorative justice model, Birmingham said it is necessary to address all parties’ needs before healing and reconciliation can happen.
Marilou Gervacio, director of social services/social justice for the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the new vision for justice came at the urging of bishops who lead the Illinois dioceses. The report was years in the making after bishops assigned to the conference’s jail and prison ministry committee took on the task.
Michelle Martin, reporter for the Chicago Catholic¸ wrote that restorative justice was not a new issue for the church. She identified a previous report originating from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000. Titled, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” the report became a foundation for the current rebranding of the church’s approach to criminal justice.
Cortina said part of achieving restorative justice is making sure adequate support is available for those returning from incarceration to help them successfully reintegrate back into their communities.
Currently, the diocese and jail and prison ministries communicate and work together, but they would need considerably more resources to provide seamless support across diocesan lines. Restorative justice brings communities into the process. That is important for communities of color, which are most affected by both crime and incarceration, Cortina said.
Birmingham said the report’s release was timely due to the continuing public debate around crime and incarceration. She said restorative justice is not “a pie-in-the-sky theoretical idea” because other organizations and countries that suffered from decades of conflict, for instance Northern Ireland and South Africa, use it successfully.
“That’s why our work with the church and this statement are so important,” Birmingham said. “It’s the work of all of us in the community to have that mind shift that everybody mentions. We want to move beyond the polarity of who’s soft on crime and who’s hard on crime.”