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How Can Restorative Justice Address the Harm of Clergy Sexual Abuse? Thoughts from Janine Geske

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

As I read and learn about the clergy abuse crisis, I always keep my eyes open for people who are implementing creative ideas to work for positive change. In my research, there are certain names that come up over and over, people who have looked at the problem from a unique perspective and have decided to try a new approach; Justice Janine Geske is one of those people. When I saw that she would be speaking at Lumen Christi Parish in Mequon, as part of their Lenten “Soup and Substance” series, I knew I had to be there to hear what she had to say.


Janine Geske has served as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, a Distinguished Professor of Law at Marquette University, and more recently, a member of Marquette University’s Board of Trustees. In addition to these illustrious roles, she has also been a leading voice in the restorative justice movement, which is how her work comes to intersect with the issue of clergy sexual abuse. (If you’re not familiar with the idea of restorative justice, please see this article from the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation for an introduction to the basic principles: What Is Restorative Justice?)


Here’s what I learned from Janine Geske’s presentation on April 2:


Justice Geske began with an basic introduction to the concept of restorative justice, which is a “philosophical approach to harm” that seeks to promote healing when someone has been hurt. When looking at a situation, restorative justice asks three important questions:

1) Who was harmed by what happened?

2) What is the nature of the harm?

3) How can this harm be addressed?

An important aspect of restorative justice is looking beyond the obvious victim of a crime to see the ripple effect on the larger community. Geske explained these concepts using the example of a burglary in which some heirloom jewelry is stolen from the home of an elderly woman. While our typical criminal justice system might address the monetary value of the items that were taken, restorative justice might notice the broader effect of this crime: the sentimental value of the lost jewelry might cause emotional distress to the woman; the invasion of her house might make her feel unsafe in her home; the event might cause her son to wonder if his mother should still be living alone; the crime might make others in the neighborhood feel less secure. Restorative justice considers not only the victim and the offender, but also the community that surrounds them and how all have been impacted.


Justice Geske also highlighted the fact that offenders are treated differently in restorative justice than in other approaches. Rather than focusing exclusively on punishment, restorative justice offers offenders the opportunity to understand the human impact of their crimes and, in some cases, make amends. Geske asserted that this method holds offenders accountable for the harm they have caused, in a deeper way than a simple punitive system.


After giving a basic overview of the principles of restorative justice, Justice Geske explained how this approach might be applied to the issue of clergy sexual abuse. While the person who was abused is of course the primary victim, the ripples of harm extend to that person’s family and friends and even beyond that, to lay Catholics, priests, and society at a whole. In addition, asking about “the nature of the harm” leads to the realization that the abuse itself was not the only harm done to victims. In many cases, the way that victims were treated by the Church when speaking out about their abuse is another source of devastating harm. Geske reminded the audience that the rage that some survivors express toward the Church “comes from a real, honest place” because they have sustained a serious harm at the hands of not just their abuser but also of the Church they reached out to for help.


One common restorative justice practice is using a “healing circle” that gathers affected parties to listen to one another and share their stories. In the early 2000s, Janine Geske worked with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Marquette University to conduct healing circles that engaged victims, offenders, lay ministers, clergy, and members of the faith community. All were encouraged to listen respectfully to one another as they shared their experiences. One such healing circle, which included then-Archbishop of Milwaukee Timothy Dolan, was filmed so that others could learn from the method and the stories shared. (Information about that video, including a way to purchase streaming rights, is available here. Anyone interested in watching it together?) Geske shared that one key result of such circles is a realization among all participating that a survivor of sexual abuse can’t just “get over it.” While restorative justice practices might be helpful in addressing the harm caused by clergy abuse, Geske reminded her listeners that “there’s no such thing as closure” in these cases; “trauma changes you,” and nothing can erase that.


In applying restorative justice practices to the situation in the Church today, Geske asserted that circumstances have changed over time. While dialogues ideally take place with the person who caused the harm, at this point many of the abusive priests have died or are too elderly or infirm to participate. In these cases, attention should be given to the harm caused by the mishandling or cover up of abuse; this healing work needs to be done with the hierarchy of the Church.


In her presentation, as well as in responses to questions from the audience, Justice Geske offered a few practical suggestions for parishes who want to be part of the healing of the Church.

  • If there is ever an accusation against a parish priest, be mindful of how your parish reacts. In many cases, Catholics have been quick to question the accuser and support the priest, even in cases when the priest was guilty. Victims who are doubted and blamed by their parish community are often alienated from the Church and never come back. Instead, listen and offer support without judgement.

  • Include prayers for survivors of abuse in your general intercessions at Mass.

  • Be cautious about discussing forgiveness with those who have experienced abuse. Survivors of trauma will move towards forgiveness if and when they are ready; this is lifelong work for many survivors. Asking someone who has been harmed to forgive can be hurtful, and this can drive people away from the Church. Also, remember that forgiveness does not translate to a lack of punishment or accountability for offenders.

  • Consider issues of lay leadership, transparency, safety, and sensitivity to survivors in all parish programs. Rather than compartmentalizing attention to these issues, evaluate all ministries through these lenses.

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While there was great value in the information and experience offered during this talk, which I have tried to summarize above, this was not the most valuable part of Janine Geske’s presentation for me. Instead, what made the biggest impression were the stories she shared of personal encounters with victims of crime and abuse. Geske has spent years listening to these stories, and she interspersed her talk with several heart-wrenching narratives about the real-life impact of abuse.


Geske told the story of a preteen girl who was groomed and then abused by the associate pastor at her parish over the course of several years. When this girl finally came to understand, at age thirteen, that this abuse was not love, she spoke to the pastor. He responded by saying “You’re old enough to seduce a priest” and calling her abuser into the room to receive a special blessing in her presence. When her parents found the letters written between the girl and her abuser, they asked “So, that’s what you want to be? A whore?” and “How could you do this to us?” Is it any wonder this girl spent years thinking the abuse was her fault?


Justice Geske told another story, of a man who was assaulted by a priest as a child, in the sacristy of the church after serving at a funeral. When his parents wrote the Archbishop a letter describing the abuse, the Archbishop told them that he would “take care of it" and said “I hope you will find it in your hearts to forgive him.” Unfortunately, no action was taken to prevent the priest from hurting other children, and he went on to abuse others before finally being turned in by a secretary who heard an assault in progress.

There were several other stories like this - stories that brought home the reality of clergy sexual abuse. To understand the seriousness of this problem, it is vital that we all make the space to hear these stories, as painful as it might be.


I am grateful to Janine Geske for all of the information and perspective that she shared and also for the stories that reminded me why this work is so important.


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If you would like to learn more about Janine Geske’s work, I would recommend these two articles she has written for the Marquette University Law School faculty blog:

Repairing the Harm from Clergy Sex Abuse (2009)

Restorative Justice and Clergy Abuse (2018)

For a more recent reflection on the way restorative justice is currently being used by parishes in St. Paul-Minneapolis, this is an excellent article from a priest in the Twin Cities:

Where Do We Go From Here: Restorative Justice A Path to Healing (2019)


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The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.

- Psalm 34:19

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