There will be an opportunity to Gift Aid your donation, and/or to direct your gift to the brothers, or sisters or a particular house, after you have completed the final page on PayPal (PayPal account not required).

The Sacrament of Confession: a call to mission

Pope Francis makes his Confession in St Peter’s

As Christians, we confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Our confessions can be made in private, perhaps with a priest, or form part of the liturgical life in our church. For many of us, the liturgy can facilitate a powerful encounter with God’s mercy and forgiveness, enabling us to reflect on the wrongs we have done and to hear the good news of God’s forgiveness in the words of absolution. Whichever form it takes, the act of confession is a vital element in the life of the church. Because we are reconciled with God, repentance and forgiveness define our lives.

I have long been interested in the mechanism of reconciliation, and the way the sacrament of confession functions in that process. My interest now focuses on the lives of those who don’t come to church, and the way reconciliation can become part of their experience too. This has led me to learn more about the practice of restorative justice, a process that attempts to reconcile victims with offenders. This ancient approach has impacted the legal systems of a number of countries, such as New Zealand, but in Britain, the criminal justice system remains largely punitive, and there is little room for forgiveness. However, there is one area of promise in our youth justice system. It centres on Referral Orders and community panels.

In 2010, I trained as a community panel member. The role allows me to work with young offenders who have committed a serious criminal offence. The law currently offers any young person who pleads guilty in court the opportunity to receive a Referral Order. Under that Order, the young person is supervised by a Youth Offending Team and a panel of community members. The young person has to first meet with two panel members – such as myself – and explain their offence. During the meeting, the young person is helped to see the harm that’s been caused by their offence, and thereby gain empathy for the victim and to express their remorse, either directly to the victim or in a written letter of apology. In this process, the young person also has to carry out an act of reparation, perhaps serving on a community project or some such task. The reparation aims to repair the harm that has been done to the victim or instead function as a symbolic repayment by the offender to the community. Additionally, the young person needs to complete a series of workshops, which are aimed at improving their life skills. At the end of the Order – providing the young person has completed all the elements – their original conviction is ‘spent’. This means the young offender has no criminal record. Effectively, the young person can walk away with a clean slate. In church terms, they are absolved!

As the previous point indicates, I have noticed many similarities between the process of community panels and the sacramental act of confession. Like a penitent, the young person is guided along the path of contrition and comes to recognize the harm they have caused. They are then encouraged to repent by way of apology and practical work, and finally, with the successful completion of the Order, the young person is set free. In short, they are forgiven by society.

I love my work as a panel member. It is a privilege to work with young people and their families, and to learn more about their lives and struggles. I have begun to wonder whether the victims of crime could be more encouraged to participate in the process. In my experience, when the young offender meets their victim, the reality of forgiveness reaches a whole new level. Genuine reconciliation can happen, and I’m convinced God is at the heart of the event, enabling all parties to see the reality of his mercy.

With all this in mind, I believe the Christian sacrament of confession offers us an insight into how we should work with young offenders. There are, of course, major differences between the two. In the sacrament, the roles are straightforward: the sinner asks God, the victim, for his forgiveness.  In the youth justice system, the roles are messier. Young offenders are often victims themselves, children who have been let down by their families and society as whole. Frequently, their upbringing has impacted their emotional and psychological skills, which thereby limits their ability to understand what they have done. It’s rarely very clear who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. The young people are usually both.

However, the main difference between the sacrament of confession and the youth justice system remains the place of victims within them. Whilst God is always present in the church’s act, the victims of crime are often unwilling to meet with young offenders. This is due to a host of reasons, most of which are understandable: fear, anger, wanting to move on and forget about what happened, or a general mistrust of the system itself. But, in my view, it can sometimes have to do with their lack of belief in forgiveness, even if the evidence suggests that a meeting between victim and offender has a positive effect on both, reconciling them in unexpected ways.

Nonetheless, our society remains punitive in nature, and so refuses to support the path to reconciliation. Yet without victim participation in the judicial process, the success of our community panels can only be partial. For example, the young person can certainly write a letter of apology – a heartfelt expression of remorse and a plea for forgiveness – and these can bring tears to the panel members’ eyes, but they won’t be read by the victims if they ‘want nothing to do with them’. That is like us confessing to a God who stands with his back to us.

Forgiveness is no easy task. The pain caused by crime can be unbearable, so we must not judge the victims. Those of us who experience God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of confession should consider ways for us to carry that experience out into the criminal justice system. In effect, the sacrament of confession could become part of the church’s mission, operating in the same way as our charitable works and evangelistic events. In other words, our participation in restorative acts of justice – just like a sacrament – could become a sign and instrument of the mystery of God’s forgiveness, freely offered to those who have harmed us in the hope that their lives can also be transformed by the miracle of reconciliation. In this way, our restorative acts could become an expression of God’s gifts to us.  f

Tereza Harvey is a Community Panel Member in London. She is a Trustee of The Association of Panel Members and studied criminology at King’s College, London.