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The healing journey towards forgiveness

Janet Smidt

A central principle of restorative justice is rebuilding lives and relationships rather than just punishing and rejecting offenders. Janet Schmidt, trainer and co-ordinator of a conflict resolution programme in Canada, writes of the task of mediation between offenders and victims. It is a careful and time-consuming process. What do we learn for practice?

Forgiveness is defined by many as one piece of a longer healing journey. It represents that time when an event no longer has control over the lives of both victims and offenders. Nonetheless, forgiveness is rarely, if ever, a one-time event and may take years to complete. Both victims and offenders cycle through and revisit forgiveness in various ways at different times of their lives. Indeed, the experience of forgiveness is itself a journey which is dynamic and always changing. Although the larger healing journey is unique to each individual, several general stages can be identified for both victims and offenders. But the journey of forgiveness need not be a linear process. People not only move through the process repeatedly, they often move back and forth between the stages. Sometimes two or more stages can happen almost simultaneously.

The victim's journey

The first stage in the healing journey for victims is often denial. Certainly, the level of violation will influence how this denial is expressed. Victims may say, “This is not really happening," or “I must have done something to cause this." Mediators don't often see participants at this stage as cases are usually brought to their attention only after victims have begun acknowledging their experience. Where victims are still in this stage, the effectiveness of a third party intervention is limited. Victims will minimise an apology and will be unable to articulate their need for a complete release from the experience. Even more disconcerting is the impact on offenders, who may conclude that the offence is unimportant, therefore increasing the likelihood that it will be repeated. The following four stages are based on Lewis B. Smedes' book, Forgive and Forget.

The victim may next experience the stage called hurting. The victim has acknowledged a violation has occurred, feels emotional pain, and is primarily interested in finding release from pain. This is a significant motivating factor for participation in a mediation. For instance, a victim may readily agree to a meeting, hoping it will take the pain away. If the offender apologises, the victim may quickly grant forgiveness, hoping this will stop the pain. Even at this stage victims are often unable to articulate what they will need from offenders in order to continue their healing journey.

The victim's next stage is anger, directed at the offender and the offence. The harm inflicted upon a victim is acknowledged in this anger. Here victims are less likely to participate in meetings as they are angry about the injustice and may feel the offender should be punished “to the full extent of the law". If the victim does agree to participate, their motivation can include a need for revenge. It is not unusual at this point for the victim to vilify the offender, defining them only by the action that caused the pain. If the victim granted forgiveness before reaching this stage, it may well be retracted now. Final agreements at this stage are frequently unsatisfying for all parties involved.

Mediators who see victims at this stage must work with these additional dynamics, being patient and gentle with the victim. Often it is helpful for victims if the intervention is not a one-time event. A second session, scheduled after a given period, can allow victims to consider the new information received during the mediation, thus freeing them to move on. Mediators must also learn to recognise the difference between anger at the offence, and the type of anger expressed in the anger stage. The latter anger is unfocused, delighting in the suffering of the offender. Anger at the offence expresses itself in different ways and is often a necessary ingredient to motivate positive action, protect against further victimisation, call for accountability and even protect others. Anger at the offence should he encouraged by third party interveners throughout the healing journey.

Once through the anger stage, the victim can move towards understanding. It is here that victims can experience healing, in that the violation no longer controls them. Here, too, victims often ask for three things.

Victims are often able to articulate what they need in a constructive manner and are better able to hold the offender accountable. It is at this stage that victims may grant an offender's request for forgiveness.

At the understanding stage there is also potential for the victim to move on to reconciliation. Reconciliation occurs when the relationship between the victim and the offender experiences transformation, evidenced by new understandings and greater intimacy. Healing, however, does not depend on whether the parties choose to reestablish a relationship. If they are able to pursue reconciliation, there will be a further healing effect for both of them. But reconciliation is not always possible or necessary and in some situations is unwise. Victims need patience and support throughout this process. In the earlier stages, mediators can anticipate questions victims will have later on, and can gently encourage offenders to answer the questions many victims have during the understanding stage. Mediators also need to be comfortable with the victim's anger and see it as an essential part of the healing process.

The offender's journey
Following a conflict or violation, offenders also need to find some way of putting the incident in the past. While victims seek healing from the “offence", offenders often wish to change old patterns of behaviour. For many, their offence continues to control them, whether through guilt, self-hatred, emotional turmoil or a predisposition to re-offend. Only as they move through a healing process can the event lose this power.

Like victims, offenders first experience denial. At this point they make excuses for their behaviour and acknowledge very little, if any, of their wrongdoing. When the offender is in denial, a face-to-face encounter is rarely safe for the victim. Only when the offender begins to take responsibility should a meeting be arranged. Unfortunately, this may take years or it may never happen.

The offenders' second stage is remorse. Offenders have some feeling of wrongdoing but qualify their actions with excuses, including “Yes, but ..." comments. They may be able to acknowledge their deeds and even apologise for them, yet focus on the circumstances that “led" them to behave in this way. They have difficulty taking responsibility and often look for a “quick fix" which will allow them to “forget" the incident. Many offenders enter into mediation at the remorse stage. A mediator has a number of responsibilities when an offender is at this stage. Victims will interpret offenders' behaviour justifications as attempts to avoid taking responsibility. If victims accept a quickly given apology without sharing their pain, offenders will not complete their healing journey and are more likely to re-offend. For the sake of both, mediators must encourage victims to speak about the emotional, spiritual and physical impact of their experience, and assist offenders in hearing the victims' stories.

The third stage is repentance. It is here that offenders confront the consequences of their behaviour and take full responsibility for their offence without making excuses. Offenders experience significant personal pain, realising the pain they have inflicted on the victim. Offenders not only offer restitution to victims, they also seek help to change their behaviour. True repentance is displayed when offenders take steps to ensure this happens. Mediators should encourage offenders to enter this stage. It is unlikely that offenders entering mediation at the previous remorse stage will experience the profound, life-altering experience which the repentance stage can bring. Offenders can, however be brought to the threshold of repentance and encouraged to explore it. It is very difficult to journey through repentance and mediators must feel comfortable entering the realm of strong emotions.

During the fourth stage the offender authentically asks for forgiveness and is able to apologise with no strings attached. Offenders recognise their wrongdoing and wish to express this regret to the victim.

Understanding victims' and offenders' journeys of healing is crucial for mediators. In many situations, however, the journeys are somewhat blurred as participants play the roles of both victims and offenders. This is particularly true in cases involving longstanding relationships. The challenge is to be as helpful as possible for all participants in their own healing process and not inadvertently bring more hurt. Regrettably some mediators give the impression that mediation is the end of the healing process. Experienced mediators know that other experiences may reactivate the hurt and the victim may need to recycle through some of the healing stages. In cases of significant victimisation it is important for the mediator to contact the victim to see how they are doing and assure them that mediation does not necessarily mark the end of the healing journey. Also, if mediators make it too easy for offenders to move from remorse to forgiveness, they deprive offenders of the true healing and forgiveness they need and often long for. Forgiveness is not a one time event, and may even take years, especially following deeply wounding or repeated offences. Forgiveness is something offenders request and their victims grant. Mediators must understand that this is only possible after victims and offenders have taken a healing journey so that the difficult events no longer control their lives and both victim and offender are enriched by their new understandings.

This feature:

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