The Restoration of Trust

Bishop Peter Cullinane
Issue 7, August 2002



The relationship between professionals and those they serve implies of its very nature a certain need, and therefore vulnerability, on the part of those who seek help. It is this vulnerability and sense of dependency that can become deep hurt and insecurity when trust is betrayed by the professional. To whom does one go when those that one trusted have become the threat and the danger?

This is what underlies the moral imperative to restore broken trust. Failure to do so, and failure to acknowledge the need to do so, only compounds the original injustice. The problem is how to do so, especially as some ways of trying to do so can further exacerbate the problem.

John the Baptist lashed out at the perpetrators of injustice who had broken the trust which was inherent in their office. In doing so John triggered a further and lethal act of injustice. It perplexed him that Jesus seemed more tolerant, even choosing sinners as his closest companions. John sent messengers to Jesus to ask if he really was the one God was going to send for undoing of sin. But

.....Jesus seems to have understood that the only real and lasting contrition occurs, not when one is confronted with one's sins, but when one experiences the gust of grace that makes a loving and forgiving God plausible. John warned of the approach of the kingdom and passionately enjoined his listeners to renounce their evil ways. Jesus inhabited that kingdom and made it a palpable reality for others by forgiving sins, restoring faith and hope to those around him, and bringing people he touched fully alive. [1]

Election time debates seem to bring out all the John the Baptists – good people who want to impose right order. Their solutions involve various mixes of punishment, banishment and scapegoating. That primal need to have someone to blame and punish can be frenzied up, and even church leaders can find themselves moving from the extreme of having swept these problems under the carpet to opposite extremes. The problem with simply punishing and banishing offenders is that it may not change anyone's inner dispositions. In fact, the barricades that these "solutions" erect stand as evidence of non-change because they keep the victims, the offenders and the community away from each other. The restoration of trust requires an entirely different solution.

Moving On

Pope John Paul II teaches that:

.....both individuals and peoples who have been the victims of abuses of power and oppression need a sort of healing of memories in order to become free of past evils. This does not mean forgetting past events; it means being able to see them with a new attitude... The truth is that no one can afford to remain a prisoner of the past. [2]

It is necessary "to get on with life" without being glib about "forgiving and forgetting". To endlessly go back over what has happened on the one hand, or try to forgive and forget too quickly on the other, are both ways of enabling the original offence to linger on. It is one thing to integrate a permanent and painful memory into a mature recovery. It is another matter to leave it festering either because of moving on too fast or by not wanting to move on at all.

"Moving on" is difficult. Individuals can get stuck at the point where they have been most traumatised by the offence. The sheer horror of it will focus some people's attention on the need for punishment, or the need to ensure that it cannot happen again. Others will get locked into feeling they will never be able to trust the offender again, or the group of professionals to which the offender belongs. Others will be so aggrieved at having been deceived, cheated and betrayed that the need to make the offender accountable will dominate their thinking.

When people find themselves unable to "move on" this can limit their expectations, and limit access to what they need most of all – hope. They need to know that their present feelings are "okay", and that those feelings are appropriate to a particular stage on the journey towards a new chapter of their lives. (It will be too soon for them to accept that forgiveness and restored trust in the professional group, perhaps even in the offender, may be the theme of that new chapter.) This is true for the primary victim/survivor of the original injustice; it is true also for the community to which he/she belongs; and it is true for the offender.

The journey needs to proceed at each one's own pace. Each may have blockages, and each may need assistance, including professional assistance, to help them through. And yet, the journey of each is linked to the journey of the others. This important point comes to light when we take a closer look at the journey of each in turn.

The Primary Victim (Survivor)

Anger, hurt and mistrust are appropriate responses to the outrage of sexual abuse. These feelings result from trauma , and no moral judgement needs to be, or can be, put upon them.

But there are other judgements that also need to be made. Health professionals who speak about stress remind us that strong emotions, such as hostility, cause biochemical changes in us, and that in some circumstances these can cause or aggravate disease. They also point out that the inability to forgive is a stress factor in the life of the person who is unable to forgive. So while these feelings are not something the victim needs to feel guilty about, nor are they necessarily harmless, they do need to be seen as belonging to a stage along the journey towards wholeness.

Consequently, even if at this stage the primary victim feels she/he never wants to see the offender again, or have contact with other members of the offender's professional group, we would hardly want her/him to be under the offender's power, even in this sense, for the rest of her/his life.

For the same reason, to respect the victim's pace is not some kind of end in itself. It is part of helping the victim to move forward to where she/he might yet be. Is there not an implied goal even in the victim's request for help? And isn't the victim entitled to look to the counsellor as one who carries hope and the possibility of further healing and liberation? So the process is not merely a matter of adapting the victim's life to his/her present feelings. Counsellors may feel the need to be non-directive, but their clients have a right to know that the process is not directionless.

The Offender

We are all familiar with the depths of denial and lack of victim empathy that characterise many offenders. It is not hard to see how the offender's journey towards wholeness is unfinished so long as he/she has not fully accepted responsibility for their crime, repented of it and committed themselves to reparation.

Those involved in restorative justice claim that meeting the victims can sometimes help offenders to move towards a deeper realisation of what they have done, acceptance of responsibility for it, and feeling the need to make reparation . The victim's needs and stage of journey must be given first consideration, which means that such meetings may not always be appropriate. But the experience of restorative justice, or its more ancient antecedents in some indigenous cultures, should not be lightly dismissed, especially as we ourselves are still looking for the processes we need for promoting justice and reconciliation.

Extreme solutions, such as banishing the offender, tend not even to allow the opportunity for restorative justice.

The Community (Secondary Victim)

The community too is on a journey and needs to move beyond hurt, anger and mistrust towards healing and wholeness. Here, too, the goal is not being proposed as a substitute for the steps along the way, and so it will be necessary for the community to allow the truth to be told, justice to be done and seen, and the risk of future offending properly provided against.

But can the community leave it at that, and hope the offender will stay out of town, "out of sight and out of mind"? A parish, school or other Church institution, certainly cannot lick its wounds forever, or pretend it has none, or try to return to how things were before. The offence is now part of its history. It needs to take on board the requirements of justice, reparation and accountability, and provide against future risk. In this way it avoids denial, and it avoids marginalizing the victim by acting as if these needs were the victim's alone. The community also needs to assure itself that the offender has met his/her obligations towards the primary victim.

Experience show that primary victims' two greatest needs are: (1) the need to be taken seriously and (2) the need to know that the offender will not commit the same offences against others. There can be no healing and no restoration of trust if these needs are not squarely met.

By the same token, "solutions" that make no distinction between offenders who could offend again and offenders about whom it can be certain that they won't, can create new forms of injustice. The obligation on church leaders to do justice for the benefit of all includes the obligation not to do injustice to any. For church leaders, and the communities they lead, there are big challenges here.

The community might also find it challenging to face and overcome its own fears. Some of these fears "tap a deep well of fear and anger that goes beyond the facts of (the) crime". Speaking of paedophiles, Stephen J Rossetti says:

They challenge us to face an unconscious and primal darkness within humankind. Our inability to face this darkness causes us to stereotype and banish all who embody our estranged dis-passions. In the past, this process spawned Molokai and a host of other human prisons. Today we are banishing the child molester. [3]

Putting such people "out" to where we would have even less control of their movements is hardly doing justice to the wider community.


Sensitivity to the present situation makes us wary of referring to the need for mercy. The Christian community needs at this time to place beyond all doubt its commitment to meeting the needs and right of the victim and the needs and rights of the community. And so we try to avoid language that might be mistaken for leniency, or a let-out or cheap grace. But the misuse of words like forgiveness and mercy is not a reason for avoiding their proper use. Ultimately, our Christian faith is about mercy – about being loved while we were still in our sins, and about opening ourselves to mercy by being merciful. That is why the gospel really is radical. If it is rather silly to use "mercy" in any way to condone evil, it is ultimately worse to use evil as a reason for avoiding mercy.

There is a need for clear thinking. Forgiveness is not a matter of forgiving offensive behaviour; we reject the behaviour, and forgive the person when that person also repudiates the offensive behaviour . Nevertheless such forgiveness calls for great courage on the part of all involved.

This is where we must also speak of responsibility. As well as having needs and rights, all parties have responsibilities. Their responsibilities arise from the fact that they all belong to a common humanity in which each one's sense of belonging, and ability to overcome alienation, can depend on what others do to help them belong. Here the gospel of life is quite at odds with the ideology of individualism. The journey back to wholeness for each of us also involves the journey back to wholeness of others. That is because wholeness involves belonging, and ultimately we only belong t ogether. This journey does not "happen", we take responsibility for it.

The connection between receiving mercy and showing mercy is intrinsic, not merely arbitrary. Mercy is enabling both for the offender and the offended. We come to a deeper experience of being liberated and being healed through the experience of forgiving and giving hope and life to others.

It is an interesting paradox that the hard-line approach, despite itself, gives the offender power over everyone else by making everyone else's healing dependent on what the offender must do first. It is a comforting though challenging paradox that the victim and the community retain the initiative only by going outside their strict rights and becoming instruments of mercy.

Leaders and their communities will be more able to carry out their responsibilities when, with Kierkergaard, they believe the opposite of sin is not virtue, it is grace.


[1] Bailie, G. (1995). Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, pp.208-9.

[2] Pope John Paul II. (1997). Offer Forgiveness and Receive Peace. Origins 26:28, pp.453-458.

[3] Rossetti, S. (1995). The Mark of Cain: Reintegrating Paedophiles. America 173:6, pp.9-16.



Bishop Peter Cullinane is President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference.