4 Takeaways from The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Sexual Abuse

By Anna Groff

I highly recommend
The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Sexual Abuse by Judah Oudshoorn, Michelle Jackett, and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz. It is a short yet incredibly important book for all pastors and church leaders. It includes helpful definitions, process suggestions, and case studies. Following are four main points I took away after reading this book. Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, one of the authors, is restorative justice coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

1. Restorative justice puts victims’ safety and needs first. The book begins with this: Harms create needs —> Justice meets those needs —>True justice is healing. Restorative justice allows victims to say what they need first and be the primary drivers of any processes. This is “empowerment through choice,” according to the authors. It is crucial. Restorative justice does not prioritize reconciliation or forgiveness unless desired by the victims. The book offers examples of other needs of victims, such as being believed, having a voice, knowing the harm wasn’t their fault, and receiving permission to make mistakes throughout the healing process. There is also the misconception that restorative justice involves a face-to-face meeting with the victim and offender; this may not be safe or advisable in many situations.

2. Restorative justice process requires accountability and responsibility. Since safety is needed for potential future victims too, accountability for offenders requires safety plans, supervision, clear boundaries, and behavioral expectations. Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz said that depending on the situation, the offender may not yet be taking responsibility but he or she still needs to be held accountable. She shared the story of a man arrested in a sting operation who wanted to continue to fully participate in church life. The church leaders told Lorraine: “He said he doesn't want to do a supervision policy." Lorraine responded: “Then he cannot come to church. He’s clearly not ready or able to be held accountable by those who he is in community with.” Also, it can be tempting to put the needs of the offender in the forefront, and we may do this without even realizing it. For example, a well-intended pastor may spend hours talking with an offender or attending court hearings and yet fail to adequately reach out to the victim and his or her family. As Judith Lewis writes, “The victim asks the bystander to share the burden of pain.” While difficult, a restorative justice process effectively helps leaders focus their energy on the needs of the victim(s).

3. The needs and humanity of everyone is acknowledged. During sexual abuse crisis, more than the primary victim and his or her family is affected. Others in the community who have been victimized in the past will be paying close attention to how the crisis in handled by those in leadership. The book emphasizes that these needs must also be attended to. Lisa Schrich addresses legal implications too, in her related article: “Processes involving family and community conferences to respond to victim’s needs should complement, not replace criminal justice processes. These processes recognize that sexual abuse disrupts entire communities and families, and that there may be other silent victims in the community.” In addition, the process distinguishes the offenses from the offender, which allows for possible healing while still holding the offender accountable. “Once people started treating me like a human being, I realized I better start acting like one,” said one offender in a support group. 

4. Finally, restorative justice brings awareness and works at prevention for communities. Communities themselves need healing from crisis. This can happen through meetings for questions, circle gatherings to hear harms and feelings, and problem-solving groups that discuss future planning. The book states that restorative justice can be used as a dialogue process for community groups even when those directly involved and/or offenders do not wish to participate. These meetings may prevent future abuse by acknowledging its prevalence and harmfulness. Victim-centered restorative justice brings abuse into the light by creating places to talk openly about it and take action to prevent it.