Crime & forgiveness

Most of us like to believe that every human being deserves a chance at redemption. But are some crimes so dark that forgiveness can never be earned?

He spends a lot of time in the education library of the North Dakota state penitentiary, typing out letters to newspaper editors and suggesting that perhaps someone - anyone - might want to come listen to his story and write a different ending. Those with long memories might recall the outlines: It was on a spring day in 1992 when a top Exxon executive, Sidney Reso, was kidnapped outside his New Jersey home. He was shackled, gagged, placed in a wooden box and "stored" in a self-storage locker. The kidnappers demanded $18 million in ransom money and led the police on a seven-week chase before being caught. By then Reso, having suffered a heart attack, was long dead.

Arthur Seale, a prep school boy and ex-cop who had once worked as a security expert at Exxon and then fallen on hard times, pleaded guilty, as did his wife Jackie, a former Boston University homecoming queen.

Mr. Seale was sentenced to life plus 125 years in jail, without possibility of parole. At the time he was 46 years old, depressed, and - by his own description - delusional.

Since then, Seale has done much to rehabilitate himself: He completed an undergraduate degree, and earned an MA and then a PhD in psychological counseling through correspondence courses. He tutors other prisoners, submits opinion pieces on prison reform to newspapers, participates in Quaker seminars on alternatives to violence, and is involved in trying to reach out and offer restitution to victims through restorative justice programs.

And now he talks of redemption. He craves some recognition for this change - some sort of forgiveness, especially from those he has sinned against.

Forgiveness: It's one of the most emotional of all topics connected with the criminal justice system. Can a man like Seale - who, as part of a calculated scheme to enrich himself, killed a man who was also a husband, son, father, and grandfather - ever expect any form of forgiveness? Can he earn it? Should his victims be encouraged to give it? And, does he, or any other criminal, need that forgiveness to fully become a better, changed person?

Seale will never get out of prison, and he says he is resigned to that. But he refuses to accept that, as a human being, he is no more than the sum total of his worst act.

"I can never undo deeds done, but I am trying to make myself into a decent, good person," he says, parting his blond hair, his pale hands slightly trembling in the cold, empty visitors' room of the penitentiary. "I think there is a point, which I have reached, where I am no longer the person who committed that crime. I certainly think and act differently now."

"People should be judged by the totality of their lives," he suggests. "I'm not saying I don't deserve my punishment. But I want to be considered as more than just the kidnapper and murderer of Sidney Reso."

Studies show that forgiveness can be a strong agent for healing for both sides. Society generally seems eager to celebrate those who have been able to forgive. And those who have committed offenses often crave forgiveness above all else.

Earlier this month, in an unusual turn of events, a group of murderers on death row raised $10,000 in scholarship money for a Texas man who had expressed compassion for his father's murderer.

At the same time, academics are taking a new interest in the topic, with departments of "forgiveness studies" springing up at a number of universities where researchers track the benefits of forgiveness to both society and individuals.

And yet, experts stress, forgiveness does not necessarily come easily, or quickly. Sometimes it does not come at all - and it should not, as such, be the focus of the offender's efforts.

"I am very cautious about telling victims they have to forgive," says Howard Zehr, a professor of sociology and restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. "I have spoken to so many victims who feel offended by this pressure to forgive. It can be a powerful thing, but it is not for everyone."

Years after his crime, Seale sent letters to Mrs. Reso - through a prison priest and through lawyers - attempting to explain his deeds, and to apologize. He had been under terrible psychological pressure, he wanted her to know. In a sense, he claims, he himself had been a victim.

His daughter had been raped and he had not known how to deal with it. His businesses had fallen apart. His debt had grown and he had been forced to move back in with his parents. He was egotistical, insecure, lacking in religion, misguided, and unlucky, he explains. He was a person he despises today, he says, but he takes responsibility for that person nonetheless.

"I wanted her to know that I had not forgotten what I did. And that I think about it and it troubles me," he says. "If she wanted to come yell at me - if that would help her in some way - I would agree to that."

It is unclear whether Mrs. Reso received or read the letters. If so, she never responded.

Facing - but not forgiving

Debora Cackler has never heard of Seale, and has nothing to do with him, or his crime. But, as someone who was the victim of a different violent criminal act, she can understand Mrs. Reso's silence.

It was 25 years ago. Choir practice at church had been canceled because of the snow, and so 14-year-old Cackler was trudging back to her school building in Omaha, Neb., to call her dad to pick her up. She was stopped by a stranger, who kidnapped, raped, and dumped her in a snowy alley. Her family soon moved away from their hometown, and the rapist was eventually caught, convicted, and jailed.

Two years later, Cackler got a letter from her attacker, Charles Goodwin. He had found God, he said, and was sorry for his deeds. He wished her well. The letter terrified her, and her parents destroyed it. She wanted nothing to do with him.

Cackler grew up, went to college, worked on political campaigns, biked across America, married, had two children and moved to Virginia. Years passed, but she still suffered from seizures, flashbacks, and bouts of depression.

Looking for help, she became interested in the field of restorative justice, attending seminars and cautiously considering the possibility of communicating, some day, with her offender - mainly, she says, to put to rest the fear that he would ever hurt her or her family again. Last month, with his parole hearing coming up, she decided to go back to Nebraska and face her past, hoping to fashion a new, more conclusive ending to her story.

She recognized him across a crowded waiting room. He, too, knew exactly who she was and lowered his eyes. She walked up and put out her hand. "Hello. I'm Debra Cackler," she began. They spoke for a long time, but he never asked for forgiveness. He knew better than that, she says.

"The person who is in need of forgiveness long ago totally abdicated their right to control that process," says David Doerfler, the founder and facilitator of "Concentric Journeys," a consulting service in Austin, Texas, dealing with healing and justice. "It is not for them to ask for it."

Forgiveness, argues Mr. Doerfler, has a lot to do with the victim letting go and trying to make meaning out of something that does not make sense. But it is not necessary to name the process - and it is definitely not something the offender should expect.

"How and when a victim 'should' forgive is interesting but you need to go deeper," he says. "It's about when you can't change the past, what do you do? It is about the victim's process."

"Was walking up to Charles Goodwin and saying what I did about forgiveness?" asks Cackler. "No. For me it was about survival and purely in my self interest. Forgiveness is not mine to give."

Mark Umbriet, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota, says, "There are people who have indicated that forgiving is tremendously helpful, because they stop allowing the offender to consume their energies and thoughts." But, he stresses, many victims can find meaning for themselves without totally forgiving. "Forgiveness can never be forced."

On an objective level, says Cackler, she is pleased Goodwin seems to have turned his life around. But on the other hand, it really does not matter to her. "All I wanted was to try to understand what was going through his mind at the time ... so it would not seem just a random act of total craziness," she says. "It really was not about him or seeing a new side of him."

"There is so much societal pressure to forgive. Priests tell you you have to let go and forgive, therapists say forgiveness is about self-growth," says Cackler. "But I don't think it's appropriate. Forgiveness is an abstract concept. But, in real life, some acts are irrevocable," she says. "That's the tragedy. That's where the offender and victim part ways. The offender's need for forgiveness will not change the act."

Teaching others to care

Seale stopped waiting for a reply letter from Mrs. Reso long ago, he says, and yet continues to be productive and helpful to other inmates in an effort to prove something to himself - if not to her. "If I didn't try and better myself," he reflects, "I would only be confirming the judgment that has been imposed on me - that I am worthless and irredeemable."

He has found his greatest satisfaction, he says, in helping other inmates through tutoring and mentoring programs. In his experience, he says, "most violent offenders lack empathy with their victims and don't care about forgiveness. I try and encourage them to think otherwise." The problem, for many is that they were never really a part of society, he says. "They were in a disturbed subculture of their own."

But, stresses Seale, "people can change. It can happen. It takes time and work and reinforcement, but we change through the decisions we make every day."

Why does an offender deserve to be helped, he is often asked. "Well, right now, about 95 percent of people in prison are going to be going home some day," he says. "If you don't do something to change them what was the purpose of sending them here in the first place?"

Forgiveness is an integral part of that process of change, he believes. How is it, he asks, that many people daily pray the Lord's Prayer - including "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" - and yet they do not see the possibility of extending forgiveness to someone like him?

Seale, and other offenders, might just have to live with these questions and the lack of closure, say the experts. Doerfler says he often recommends to offenders that they change their goals. "I tell them their whole aim is to be accountable," he says. "The issue of forgiveness, however they define it, will take care of itself."

Seale spends most of his days on his own: reading in his cell or writing in the library. On Saturdays he calls his mother. The birthday cards he sends his sister go unanswered. He does not know where his son is. His daughter, he thinks, is homeless in Denver. He has 24 hours of visiting time a month, but no one ever uses it.

"I wish for a different ending," he says. "But I can't write it."

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