Righting “Unrightable” Wrongs

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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October 2003

The clergy sexual abuse crisis has rocked the faith of many in the Catholic Church.  How does a peacemaker respond to this crisis?  Can peacemaking help to right an “unrightable” wrong?

The injury caused by sexual abuse of children by clergy is deep and wide in scope.  The direct victims have been traumatized by an abuse of power, trust and faith.  The secondary victims, including families, have been deeply betrayed in trust and faith.  The Church and its many dedicated priests are also secondary victims.  At the same time, the Church is an offender to the degree that its bureaucracy, protectionism, and denial hid and protected priest offenders from discovery and prosecution.  Finally, the offending priests are offenders whose acts must be condemned, but towards whom compassion must be shown.  How can a peacemaker work with all of these victims and offenders to restore peace?

While every case will call for its own unique process, each will share four elements.  These elements are based on a philosophy of Restorative Justice that requires recognition of the wrong, a means of making things right as possible, and assurances of future security.

The first element asks, “What wrongs were done and to whom?”  The peacemaker is looking for all of the elements of violations, including wrongs done to the offender, that may have driven the offender to his conduct.

The second element concerns truth.  It asks “What truths of the injustices are least known?”  What do people know least about this situation?  Who must tell the truth and who must hear the truth?  Finally, how should the truth be told?  These questions seek out the hidden knowledge of the violations and injuries.  They challenge the peacemaker to think about what truth is, and who should voice it.  Finally, they push the peacemaker to consider all of the ways the truth can be stated, including privately and publicly and to which audiences.

The third element concerns understanding.  It asks, “What is least understood or appreciated by others about this injustice?”  What has been the continuing effect of the violation on the parties, including the victims, offenders, and secondary parties?  In peacemaking, we find that the full effects of grave injustices are rarely understood. They must be gently exposed and validated for true healing to be possible. 

The fourth element concerns repair or making things right.  What would repair look like?  How would it feel to the parties?  Who would be involved and how? What would repair look like to the victims and the offenders?  What would be the best possible repair that the parties could allow themselves to imagine? The headlines have announced multi-million dollar settlements with various Catholic dioceses.  However, peacemakers know that money does not bring closure or peace to the parties.  Many other needs must be met, including validation, acknowledgment, accountability, apology, and forgiveness.  The parties must explore privately with the peacemaker what repairs will possibly lead to healing and not consider compensation as the only possibility.
The fifth element concerns relationship.  It asks, “What is the prospect for future relationships between the parties?”  Is there a shared interest in relationships?  How would the desire for reconciliation guide the process of peacemaking in general and repairing the violation in particular?  No doubt the victims have no desire for a continuing relationship with the offending priest, but what about their relationship with the Church and their faith?  In addition, can the larger congregation of Catholics find a new relationship with the Church through peacemaking?  What is the Church’s true desire in reconciling with the victims, the victim families, and the Church membership?  The peacemaker is concerned that if reconciliation desired, the process must authentically face the difficult first four questions, but in a way that builds trust and hope.

One of the great challenges lies in the polarity between litigation and peacemaking.  Victims and victim groups have sued the Church for damages, seeking vindication of grievous wrongs.  Cast in the shadow of adversary ideology, these claims will revolve around facts, theories of liability, legal defenses, and remedies. Little, if any, of the deeper issues of the violations will come to light as the victims’ lawyers and the Church lawyers struggle through pretrial discovery and perhaps trial.  Traditional mediation will no doubt be successfully and competently utilized to negotiate a dollar settlement, but peace will not be found.  By distilling the violations to dollars, the Church may lose an opportunity to recognize and acknowledge its deeper responsibilities to its victims and its congregations.  Similarly, the victims may find little solace in large settlement checks.

Another great challenge lies with those victims for whom the statute of limitations has run on damage claims or who are otherwise barred from legal action. The Church has no legal incentive to deal with these victims and, if arrogant, can ignore the injuries and injustices.  The injustices will not be addressed, and the injuries will continue to fester for many years.

The peacemaking process honors all who have been affected by clergy sexual abuse and does not exclude those with pending claims or those who have no claims.  The goal of peacemaking is to acknowledge the wrongs, make things as right as possible, and to talk about the future.  Through this process, the possibilities of healing, of accountability, and of hope are created for the parties. 

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm,  Noll Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2003, Douglas E. Noll