On Thursday, December 3, the Church in the 21st Century Center hosted Bill Casey, Director of the Restorative Justice Program for the Northern Virginia Mediation Service, to speak on the power of telling stories in the process of healing. The evening was sponsored by a group called Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization founded in Wellesley, Massachusetts in response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Thomas Groome, professor at the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the C21 Center, described Voice of the Faithful in his opening remarks as a group intending to “keep the faith and change the Church.”
Bill Casey currently serves as a dispute mediator for the federal government and works with juveniles who have broken school or criminal codes to repair situations. Casey introduced the concept of restorative justice, which intends to repair harm done not only to people directly involved in conflict, but those in the wider community who may also feel pain as a result of harmful action. The concept of restorative justice comes from the way many indigenous groups dealt with harm, recognizing that the harm “injures the whole community” and that the entire community needs healing. Casey pointed out that restorative justice is “very much in keeping with the biblical word justice.”
Voice of the Faithful saw a need for restorative justice in the context of its mission to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse. There had certainly been justice, but “very little healing had taken place from abuse.” Casey remarked that the abuse “impacted the whole Body of Christ,” not just those who were abused. Healing circles, safe spaces for survivors, parents whose children had been abused, and people within the Church not directly impacted but affected by abuse, were piloted starting in 2014. In a healing circle, a group of people meet for a day and simply tell their stories. The goal is to “talk and listen in a space that promotes validation” and to come to a place of “acknowledgment of harm, recovery, and accountability.” This pilot program of healing circles has been implemented in Boston, Northern Virginia, and Hartford, Connecticut.
In a healing circle, a facilitator directs the conversation in a series of questions that each participant may answer. Questions include what the person’s experience in the Church was before the crisis, how the crisis has affected a person’s faith life, and how they have moved towards healing. A talking piece is used to ensure that each person may talk for as long as they want and that they are not interrupted. During the healing circle, no follow-up questions or comments may be said although these may be addressed at the conclusion of the session. Casey described this kind of intentional conversation as “very difficult in the 21st century and in our Western context,” but that participants describe their experience in healing circles as deeply satisfying and restorative.
At the conclusion of Casey’s remarks, the audience was given a chance to interact and ask questions. A survivor of abuse said that that he had participated in three healing circles and that “they were more meaningful every time.” He said that at the beginning of each circle, there is “a shift like when you go to Mass: you leave everything at the door” and are able to “tell your story” honestly and meaningfully. For this man, healing circles have been profoundly restorative experiences that he “can’t really convey in words.”