Revenge or Reconciliation

A statement on imprisonment from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference

It can be understandable to want to hit back at someone who has hurt you. That is what makes Christ’s request to love our enemies - to do good to those who have hurt us - seem so incomprehensible when we are faced with the suffering caused by deliberate violence.

But, following the example of Christ, the Catholic tradition teaches that revenge has no place in the punishment of criminal offending.

For victims of crime to rise above feelings of revenge towards a desire for reconciliation, or for offenders to sincerely repent of the harm they have caused and seek forgiveness – these are tremendously difficult tasks. Repentance and forgiveness leading to reconciliation are among God’s greatest gifts, and at the same time are among the most difficult virtues to put into practice.

But for an increasingly fearful society in which many people are building a sense of security only on fuller prisons, longer sentences and harsher treatment of offenders, these are qualities which are too frequently dismissed as “soft” or “unrealistic”. Instead what we find are increasingly punitive attitudes towards people in prison, and calls for revenge and retribution.

As Catholics we do not discount the terrible reality of the harm caused by criminal offending, but at the same time, we know that God’s love does not give up on anyone. In Pope John Paul II’s message for the Jubilee in Prisons he reminded us that prisons can be places of redemption, and that not to promote the interests of prisoners would be “to make imprisonment a mere act of vengeance on the part of society, provoking only hatred in the prisoners themselves”. God calls even the worst of offenders to change, and offers healing to those victims of crime able to find the courage to forgive.

Neither repentance nor forgiveness can occur without love and support, nor can either take place in an environment of bitterness and vengeance. Such support is lacking far too often in our current criminal justice system.

In 1989 New Zealand’s Catholic Bishops called our penal system “a poison in the bloodstream of our nation” and predicted that unless we changed our ways of responding to crime, we were heading to become the most imprisoned society in the Western world.

Twenty years later, we have reached the number two position, second only to the United States. Prison numbers are growing faster than we can build prisons to hold people, and shortage of cells is leading to unsatisfactory solutions such as double-bunking.

Our respect for human dignity means that every person has a right to feel safe in the community. But this same respect for human dignity also means that every prisoner has a right to safety. The basis of our society’s right to punish those who abuse the human rights of others, is also the basis of our society’s responsibility to protect the human rights of offenders.

Many New Zealanders have found opportunities for repentance and forgiveness through restorative justice processes, such as Family Group Conferences. Our experience is that requiring offenders to face up to the consequences of their crimes, and giving victims an opportunity to express their hurt, can be a turning point for both parties. Restorative justice needs good facilitators who understand that reconciliation is the goal of restorative justice, and it is not simply another way of sentencing offenders. New Zealand has led the world in incorporating restorative justice processes into our justice system, and we need to continue to support this work for everyone involved.

The Catholic Church does not comment on criminal justice as a disinterested observer but as a community which has made, and continues to make, a considerable contribution to the lives of people in prisons through prison chaplaincy and other forms of ministry. Those who minister on our behalf to people in prisons speak of a constant deterioration in prison conditions, and of greater stigma for people trying to turn their lives around and reintegrate back into society.

“I was a prisoner and you visited me”– in his parable of the Last Judgement told in Matthew 25, Christ fully identified himself with prisoners. For two thousand years, the Catholic Church has responded to this message through prison ministry and visiting. All members of the Catholic family are called to heed Christ’s message: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” and to support those who work in prisons, and to welcome those coming out. Some will be able to do this through practical hands-on action, while for many others the support will be in the form of prayer. Both are needed.

All of us, whether victims of crime, offenders, employees in the criminal justice system, family members or neighbours, are called to find paths to a justice system which reconciles; which rejects attitudes of revenge; which helps victims to heal and offenders to turn their lives around. It is the only true path to the security and safety that our society longs for.

Denis Browne
Bishop of Hamilton
President, NZCBC

John Dew
Archbishop of Wellington
Secretary, NZCBC

Colin Campbell
Bishop of Dunedin

Peter Cullinane
Bishop of Palmerston North

Patrick Dunn
Bishop of Auckland

Barry Jones
Bishop of Christchurch

Robin Leamy
Bishop Assistant in Auckland