More than one hundred West Virginians ranging from victim-survivors to key diocesan officials gathered at Wheeling University last week to learn how restorative justice practices might bring healing to their scandal-plagued Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

Following Bishop Michael Bransfield’s resignation in September of 2018, West Virginians gradually learned about extensive allegations of sexual harassment and financial abuse during his thirteen-year tenure, due in large part to the contents of court filings and a leaked report that the diocese had compiled investigating the bishop’s misconduct.

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Against that backdrop, participants at last week’s conference explored the theological and biblical foundations for the use of restorative justice.

The two-day event, “Healing Harm: Restorative Justice and the Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church,” introduced attendees to an approach to justice that fosters understanding and healing between perpetrators, victims, and their communities through a focus on the naming and repairing of serious harms that have occurred.

Attendees also had the opportunity to experience a healing circle, a core restorative practice that provides a “forum for victim survivors to tell their story and also gives Catholics an opportunity to express how they have been harmed by the ripple effects of the crisis,” Father Daniel Griffith, one of the conference’s keynote speakers, told Crux.

Griffith serves as the Liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where approximately twenty parishes have incorporated these restorative practices into their local responses to the abuse crisis.

“While not a panacea, it has become apparent, through experience, that restorative justice holds strong potential for both acknowledging the harm from the crisis and a pathway to healing,” the priest said.

Joining Griffith as keynote speakers at the event were his colleague Julie Craven, a retired vice president of corporate communications and former Wisconsin Supreme Justice Janine P. Geske, Director of Marquette University Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative.

Grassroots restorative justice

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston both have experience with highly publicized, scandal-clouded resignations of bishops — Archbishop John Nienstedt in the former and Bransfield in the latter.

Their respective turns to restorative justice, however, have one glaring difference. For the Minnesota archdiocese, Griffith said, “legal proceedings involving the archdiocese opened a door for the use of restorative justice in Minneapolis-St. Paul which has now gone far beyond what was anticipated.”

For West Virginia, the move to restorative justice has unfolded as a grassroots initiative from a team of concerned Catholics lacking any formal legal backing.

West Virginia’s Wheeling University, formerly Wheeling Jesuit, has been using restorative justice principles in conflict resolution and community-building efforts for years.

Early in 2019, Jamey Brogan, Director of Campus Ministry, Mission, and Identity at the university, realized that restorative justice principles seemed tailor-made for West Virginia’s hurting church.

Brogan began reaching out to as many restorative justice experts as he could find, both inside and beyond West Virginia, leading up to last week’s meeting.

Griffith characterized this voluntary nature of West Virginia’s movement towards restorative justice as a “positive sign for its effective and sustained use in the coming months,” adding that it “says to me that the people of the diocese care deeply for their Church and that their pain is real.”

However, Griffith warned, “It is important that the bottom up movement of restorative justice in this diocese meets an openness and embrace of restorative justice from diocesan staff and the new bishop.”

Diocesan spokesperson Tim Bishop, a participant in both days of the conference, told Crux, “The task for those in attendance now becomes implementation in our local Church. There is much to do, and we look forward to working with the faithful to continue the work of restorative justice in the Diocese.”

Bishop also commended the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for “leading the church in terms of accountability, transparency, and restorative justice” and providing “a great model as we work toward healing within our diocese.”

After the conference, Griffith identified “three critical challenges for greater healing in the diocese.”

These included “the inclusion of all people at the table, including victim survivors, a sincere acknowledgment of harm and apology by current diocesan leadership, and greater accountability for those who may have been morally complicit in the past harm and injustice.”

“In order for significant healing to occur,” Griffith concluded, “restorative justice requires accountability.”

Takeaways and next steps

Jesuit Father Hadi Sasmita, a campus minister at Wheeling University, told Crux that the conference taught him that “many people are not ready to move on.”

“Restorative justice recognizes people are healing at different paces,” he said.

“As a pastoral minister, if I were to tell them to move on, it would be as if I’m saying, let’s skip the Lenten season, the passion, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and move on to celebrate the resurrection,” the Jesuit continued.

“For victim-survivors and parishioners who experience harm, their Lenten season is prolonged, not because they love pain and suffering, but because they are walking along the passion of Christ longer. As a pastoral minister, I can rush them through, or I can walk along with Christ, victim-survivors, and parishioners,” Sasmita said.

As a result of last week’s conference, at least one West Virginia parish already plans to follow in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’s footsteps by initiating restorative healing circles.

“The church crisis in our diocese has affected St. Michael Parish very personally,” explained Kathleen Dieffenbaugher, stewardship director at the parish in Wheeling. “We have been at the epicenter of it all.”

“In addition to being down the street from the former Bishop’s mansion, many of the survivors of the sex abuse have either come through St. Michael’s as young seminarians and priests, or are a part of our parish family,” she added.

“You would be hard pressed to find someone from the St. Michael family that has not been harmed by the wrong-doings,” Dieffenbaugher told Crux.

“We have been looking for a way to begin to heal the anger and pain, and we were reaching out in lots of different directions,” she continued. “The restorative justice model seems to be a great fit for all of the different levels of emotion that our congregants are experiencing.”

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