Sacrament of Reconciliation and Restorative Justice

In 2006 Elías López published an interesting booklet on how the structure of the sacrament of reconciliation and the practice of restorative justice (as described in Stephan Parmentier’s TARR model – for: Truth, Accountability, Reparation and Reconciliation) relate. I remembered this contribution recently while wondering, in the context of the paedophilia crisis in the Belgium Roman Catholic Church, how much the attitudes of many Catholics with regard to the scandal of clerical paedophilia may be determined by some aspects of the structure of the sacrament of reconciliation, understood as the practice of the individual confession, centred, of course, on the process of conversion of the sinner, the perpetrator of evil.

Indeed, if this is the dominant perspective on reconciliation and healing that structures our way of thinking also on paedophilia, we run the risk to concentrate on the individual perpetrator and to pay insufficient attention to the plight of the victim as well as to a context of healing beyond the strict relationship between victim and perpetrator. Of course, in saying this, I do not claim that such lack of attention to the victim and the community is a necessary consequence of the mindset involved in the individual confession of the sinner, as the individual confession, indeed, emphasizes the need for reparation and is situated in the context of the ecclesial community.

Practices of restorative justice accentuate the necessity to pay attention to the victim and invite to explore the larger social context that is in need of healing – beyond the strict relationship between victim and perpetrator. In fact, restorative justice invites Belgian justice to take greater care of victims and to consider broader traumatized contexts. I am convinced that both these perspectives – (1) focus not only on the perpetrator, but also on the victim, and (2) attention for reconciliation in the larger traumatized community – should be taken into account when dealing with paedophilia. Restorative practices may well provide one of the best approaches in this situation.

The theologian in me is, of course, also interested in how these two key elements of restorative justice may help us to understand, develop and practice the sacrament of reconciliation beyond its understanding as individual confession of the sinner.

First of all, is it possible to focus not only on the sinner, but also on the victim? Do we have a sacramental celebration that takes victims as the addressees? For this, we probably have to look at the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The reference to the sick could be taken in a wide sense as indicating suffering people, not only physically and not only in the process of dying. Could there be moments of sacramental anointing of those who suffer, recognizing the fact that they suffer and are victims of evil? This type of recognition of suffering and victimhood is certainly crucial in the case of paedophilia and clerical paedophilia.

A second question concerns the possibility of practices of sacramental reconciliation that involve both victims and perpetrators, as well as the larger communities that are affected. In the case of paedophilia, this means that also bystanders, people who did not, and for various reasons, react appropriately when victims told them about their ordeal, become part of a sacramental process of healing and reconciliation – family and friends, but also police, judges, medical doctors, church authorities and other authorities. Of course, such processes of reconciliation, possibly involving a large number of people and certainly not only the perpetrators, are very demanding and they may not always be possible. But offering them as a possibility reminds the larger communities of their need of healing in the face of God.

These thoughts are not meant, of course, to discredit the current practice of the individual confession of the sinner, nor do they claim that in this practice the victim and the community would be absent, but they suggest the importance of sacramental practices of reconciliation that clearly highlight also victims and larger communities. Such sacramental practices may help us all, particularly in the case of paedophilia, to remain sensitive to the plight of the victims and to community trauma. It is then also possible to gain a healing perspective on the perpetrator/sinner.

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