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.
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. "When you harm someone, you create an obligation, and that obligation is to make things right."
The victim-offender programs of restorative justice put the crime victim at the center and provide an engagement that humanizes both victim and offender. Each shares their story and explores the impact of the crime in the process of working out a restitution program.
Some 300 programs now exist in the United States, and they are growing by leaps around the world (the first was in Canada). The entire juvenile-justice system of New Zealand is based on restorative justice. Victim-offender programs have primarily focused on juvenile cases, but in recent years have moved into adult and even serious violent crime.
Bruce Kittle, director of the restorative-justice project at the University of Wisconsin Law School at Madison, handled a case of attempted homicide whose impact has reached beyond the individuals involved.
Two teenagers planning to run away were trying to steal a car from a rural home when the woman caught them. They shot her, leaving her blind and partially paralyzed. The woman went through the program with the youngster who pulled the trigger. A woman of faith, she said she experienced two levels of forgiveness. She decided not to hate them soon after the crime, although she was still angry. But when she sat down with a deeply remorseful, apologetic, and sobbing young man two years later, it "lifted her to a second level of forgiveness."
Now, she goes to a maximum-security prison twice a month, where she joins inmates in presenting a "Scared Straight" program to juvenile offenders. "A lot of the men have done terrible things and are in for long sentences," Mr. Kittle says. "Not only has she impacted the young people that visit the program, she has profoundly impacted the inmates ... talking with them about reclaiming their own sense of humanity."
Inmates struggle with forgiveness
Forgiveness is an issue for inmates as well as for victims. "Most of the guys I meet with, forgiveness is pretty important to them," Kittle says. "Some are really struggling from a faith perspective about forgiveness vis vis themselves and a Creator, but also they understand that that is related ... to forgiveness between them and the victim."
Zehr tells of an intensive program he was involved with in a Pennsylvania maximum-security prison working with lifers to help them take responsibility for what they had done. "The question of forgiveness just came up in dramatic fashion.... When they'd meet with victims who weren't their own, they'd ask, 'Do I have the right to ask forgiveness?' "
An offender's apology is a regular aspect of mediation sessions. (Only those who admit guilt can participate in the programs.) If they go a step further and ask for forgiveness, "the power shift is really dynamic," Kittle says. "You can feel it in the room. The offender says to the victim, 'You don't have to respond to this, I just want you to know that your someday forgiving me is really important.... Whatever the victim says, the victim has control."
Ray Anderson, professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., wrote a book some years ago called "The Gospel According to Judas: Is There a Limit to God's Forgiveness?" He heard from several in prison who had read it, including a convicted murderer in Los Angeles who asked him to visit.
"Manacled to the bench, he pulled out his copy and read to me parts that meant something to him. He had felt terrible remorse for years. Then he asked, 'Can God ever forgive me for murdering my own parents?' "
Dr. Anderson asked him if he thought his mother would forgive him. After a long pause, he said he thought she would. "I said, 'Then you know that God would.' He responded, 'Now I can try to make something of my life even though in prison.' "
Research under way on forgiveness includes its potential in coping with violence and crime. It has already proved effective in reducing levels of anger.
Studies indicate that a large proportion of those in prison were physically or sexually abused as children. They think of themselves as victims of that and of the system. "When some guys learn the pain they have caused someone, their own pain is so deep that it's hard for them to develop empathy for others," Kittle says. Getting at that first could help, he adds.
Robert Enright, who created the Institute for Forgiveness Research at the University of Wisconsin, is conducting a study with sexual predators. Traditional therapy has proven ineffective with them - they show no empathy whatsoever. His program tries to help them to forgive people in their own past who have hurt them. If they can develop empathy in that process, they may be able to look at their victims and others with empathy.
In our society today, "we've just disconnected ourselves from the criminal-justice system," Kittle says. We put people in jail and think "that takes care of it. Yet 95 percent ... eventually get out."
That means programs that help people on both sides of a crime can also make a difference for the community. The Serrell family's work with the young alcoholic became what Price calls "a healing alliance." Now he says, "I'm coming to see the healing alliance as something that in many cases can be expected to happen. And it may have benefits far beyond what mediation itself can accomplish."
Kittle is working on another kind of "healing alliance." He is trying to involve churches in mentoring prisoners when they are released. "For me, it connects to forgiveness and the possibility of redemption for people - it helps create community for them. Research shows that the more people feel connected to a community, the less likely they are to commit a crime."
* Part 1 of the series ran Jan. 28.