As part of my probation conditions, I have to stay away from places where there are families,” says Joe Patterson, “so that made finding a church hard.” It didn’t help that when he was released from prison, a local newspaper printed a full-page photo of Patterson along with his record of sexual offences against minors. The comment sections of news websites teemed with vitriol at the report of his re-entry into society.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his modest Winnipeg apartment, Patterson speaks without pretension, like someone who does not take for granted a second chance at life. His partner — who attends a United Church — sits on the couch nearby, typing on a laptop.
Having worked hard at rehabilitation while in prison, Patterson was eager to start over. But after his release, venturing into public, including to church, made him nervous. “Part of the challenge in reintegrating is facing the fear that no one is going to want to have anything to do with me,” he says.
Society is primed to revile and fear people with histories of criminal offence, particularly those convicted of sex crimes against children. Most communities react with concern — or outright hostility — when they learn that a pedophile has moved into the neighbourhood. But fear left to fester serves no one, except perhaps politicians, who hope their tough-on-crime resolve will turn the dark sentiments of voters into their political gain. In Ottawa, the federal government is currently upping the toughness ante with a proposed crime bill that will make laws harsher, sentences longer and, presumably, public sentiment toward offenders more hostile.
Within faith communities, the presence of someone who has transgressed against society’s most vulnerable can test the bounds of acceptance and inclusivity. And yet, some churches are choosing courage over fear and responding in a way that is both more merciful and more effective. They offer people with histories of criminal offence another chance, while still taking seriously the realities of evil.
“We’re not here to judge or condemn anyone,” says Pastor John Woodman of Grace Community Chapel (names have been changed and dates omitted to protect privacy). So when Patterson showed up at the church, Woodman considered it a “wonderful” chance to do what the church is called to do: welcome people. Jesus, Woodman notes, was a “friend of sinners.”
Patterson chose the congregation based on the recommendation of a prison chaplain, who accompanied Patterson on his first visit to the church and disclosed his past to the pastor.
Though Woodman was immediately open to having Patterson in the pew, the decision to include him — ultimately made by the church council in consultation with parents — took a couple of months and numerous discussions. One concern was the desire to show sensitivity to victims of sexual assault. The larger concerns were those of parents.
One parent said initially he wanted to either “combat” the inclusion of a pedophile or find a new church. Over time, he realized that everyone needs community. Now he is “completely at ease” with Patterson’s attendance and the “healthy boundaries” that have been created. Correctional Services required that two church members obtain approval to supervise Patterson. One of the two has to maintain visual contact with him when children are present.
Patterson, who came to faith in prison, has continued to attend the church, in between his studies and part-time work in the service sector. While he feels like a different person than the one who committed the offences, Patterson still chooses to avoid children in the congregation, partly out of respect for the parents and partly because of his determination not to “have any more victims.” He says a broken childhood and a then-unacknowledged mental illness contributed to his crimes, but quickly adds that he takes full responsibility for his actions.
In prison, Patterson recognized that most of his fellow inmates had also suffered deep rejection in life. Their need for love, intimacy and belonging was not met in “normal” ways, so they turned elsewhere, he says. The societal rejection they experience when released makes them more likely to slip into old patterns.
That’s why the acceptance of Grace church means so much to Patterson. He speaks of the church’s inclusion of various people who could be considered modern-day lepers: “That kind of compassion really models the love of Christ,” he says. “That’s what I want to be a part of.”
Though the congregation is part of an evangelical tradition often concerned with drawing borders between who is “in” and “out,” Woodman takes a different view. “Who gives [us] the right to draw a line?” he asks. “If you’ve come here, you’ve already turned your face toward God.” He quotes Jesus: “He who comes to me I will in no wise cast out.”
Grace church is not alone. For example, in Manitoba, a handful of congregations, including a United Church one, knowingly welcome people with criminal records. Rev. Bruce Faurschou, who was a prison chaplain for over 20 years before becoming executive secretary of the United Church Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, says evangelical churches have typically been more involved in this work than mainline denominations, though he notes that the United Church in Manitoba runs three halfway homes that help people transition from prison to society. Nationally, the United Church participates in the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, a coalition that promotes alternatives to the tough-on-crime trend.
In the United States, the birthplace of the tough-on-crime agenda, there are 762 inmates per 100,000 citizens, more than any other country (Canada’s rate is 108 per 100,000). But Americans are realizing that the punitive approach cripples government budgets without making society safer. A 2010 New York Times editorial stated, “America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure — the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology.”
Even some Republicans, led by former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, are questioning the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” attitude that hard-nosed conservatives have long advocated. The website of Gingrich’s Right on Crime initiative says, “An ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders.” Recognizing that prison often exacerbates rather than breaks the cycle of crime, the initiative emphasizes flexible sentencing and treatment of offenders.
This new approach is visible in Texas, where officials hope to have 15,000 fewer people behind bars in 2012 than in 2007. Not only will this save Texas a projected $2 billion, but it has already contributed to the lowest crime rates in the state since 1973.
Canada, however, is headed in the opposite direction. Since the federal Conservatives took office in 2006, spending on Correctional Services has jumped from $1.6 billion to $2.98 billion a year, an increase of 87 percent. The figure is expected to rise to $3.15 billion by 2013-14 as the omnibus crime bill (if passed) will put an estimated 3,600 additional people in prison. All of this despite the fact that from 1998 to 2007, the crime rate dropped by 15 percent and the severity of crime by 21 percent (though nearly half of Canadians believe the opposite to be true).
Politicians of all parties “have told us for 15 years that [society] is a scary place,” even though statistics show it is becoming safer, says Faurschou. The media often play along. In a Winnipeg Free Press article published last January, columnist Dan Lett confesses that even when crime rates go down, the media prefer to “reject all reasonable empirical arguments in favour of continued hysteria.”
“Let’s face it,” Lett writes, “Canadians are junkies for crime rates.” That is to say, we are junkies for fear.
But what exactly is the alternative to fear-driven ideology? While Grace Community Chapel exhibits a radically merciful attitude toward offenders, that alone is not enough to address what one expert calls “long-term, entrenched patterns of violent behaviour.”
For 12 years, Joan Carolyn has helped people deemed a high risk to reoffend — including Joe Patterson — make the transition back into society. She offers no easy answers but a courageous and thorough approach that has proven helpful in some cases.
Carolyn heads the Winnipeg office of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a gutsy little non-profit that works primarily with men who have sex offence histories. Upon release from prison, each of the men, or “core members,” is surrounded with a “circle” of four to six supporters — mostly volunteers — who meet weekly. To qualify for COSA, a core member must show remorse and want help. In Manitoba, COSA currently has about 25 volunteers, an unadorned one-room office and seven circles, including Patterson’s.
Weekly meetings are designed to nurture healthy relationships — something that may otherwise be absent — through activities like bowling, camping and birthday parties. They also involve candid discussions in which the core member has to own up to the damage he has done, put his “darkest secrets” on the table and face constant accountability, none of which necessarily happens in prison.
“I feel able to talk about anything,” says Patterson of his weekly COSA sessions. For him, the basic affirmation provided by his circle is invaluable. “You get that negative message from society: ‘I don’t want you,’” he says. “COSA has been the opposite.”
Carolyn says the COSA model — which took shape in Ontario in 1994 and has since led to the development of another 15 independent offices across the country — includes collaboration with parole workers, police, treatment professionals, social assistance networks and neighbourhood groups. Carolyn is adamant about sharing credit for any of COSA’s success with these groups and with core members themselves.
While the various COSA offices originated with faith organizations, many have broadened their base. Carolyn says roughly half of her volunteers are from churches. Across Canada, various United Church congregations and members contribute to COSA, either financially or as volunteers.
The COSA approach is based on the philosophy of restorative justice, which was developed largely by Howard Zehr, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. In his groundbreaking 1990 book Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, Zehr contrasts retributive justice, which focuses on blame and punishment, with an approach that involves all stakeholders in a process to restore wholeness to victims, offenders and communities.
Though steeped in the restorative approach, Carolyn is quick to point out that the “formal” (retributive) justice system and alternative systems must work together. In fact, a significant portion of her budget comes from Correctional Services. Carolyn also emphasizes the need to work with victim services agencies; the fundamental goal of COSA is “no new victims.”
A Correctional Services survey found that two-thirds of core members felt they would have returned to crime without COSA. And yet, some core members do reoffend. “Never underestimate the power of evil,” Carolyn says, before asserting her belief in the superior power of good. Since social isolation or a “downward spiral of behaviour” can trigger an offence, COSA volunteers are trained to identify warning signs. In some cases, volunteers and staff will encourage the core member to turn himself in and accompany him in doing so. At times, COSA staff have also reported core members against their wishes.
While COSA is not soft on crime, its toughness respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person. When Joan Carolyn says everyone is “created in God’s image,” she means it. At one point, her eyes fill with tears as she recalls the first time she saw a core member whom she had known for years enjoy life enough to actually laugh.
Demand for the program is high among those in prison, but the social climate of fear makes it hard to recruit enough volunteers to meet the demand.
While fearing sex offenders and wanting to lock up those who pose a risk is understandable, ultimately this approach may be counterproductive. Making a similar point in theological terms, one member of Grace Community Chapel says that while “isolating and scapegoating” people like Patterson may make us feel better, “it doesn’t raise us or them to the potential God sees in us.”
Howard Zehr emphasizes the importance of having a positive, constructive vision in addressing crime, something he says the punitive approach lacks. In an updated edition of his book Changing Lenses, he says restorative justice is an expression of the respect, humility and interconnectedness of all people, as well as an appreciation “of mystery, of ambiguity, of paradox, even of contradictions.”
That mystery is made real every Sunday at the communion table of Grace Community Chapel, where everyone can partake in the broken body of Christ, and where Joe Patterson’s offence matters less than his presence.
“We don’t want to be famous as the church for ex-cons,” says Woodman. “We just want to be the church.”
That’s good news, both for Joe Patterson and for society as a whole.
Will Braun is a freelance journalist in Winnipeg.
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