JUDGE JANINE P. GESKE has a groundbreaking approach for resolving damage done to the
Church by sexually abusive clergy. The former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice wants to bring to
the Church a practice that has been used in criminal justice for decades: restorative justice. She’s leading an effort at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, to help bring healing to a damaged
Church—not only to victims of predatory priests and misguided bishops, but also to entire parishes.
This past April, she and others convened a national gathering of approximately 150 Church leaders, sexual-abuse advocates and survivors to demonstrate her approach.
Judge Geske is now Distinguished Professor of Law at Marquette, where in 2005 she founded the Restorative Justice Initiative. St. Anthony Messenger visited her office, overlooking the Marquette campus, where she explained the approach.
Restorative justice, a broad movement in criminal law, takes the focus of law enforcement away from simply punishing, housing or even rehabilitating criminals. It seeks, rather, to provide an opportunity, after trial, conviction and incarceration of the criminal, for victims to meet criminals face-to-face and seek some kind of understanding: Why did this happen to me? What was going on in this criminal’s
head? How can I move on in my life with a renewed sense of wholeness?
The truth and reconciliation commission established in the wake of apartheid in South Africa in 1995 is a good example of a restorative-justice program.
“The whole approach here is: Who was harmed and what is the ripple effect of that harm?” explains Judge Geske. “What is the nature of that harm? Psychological, emotional, relational, economic? How do you go about repairing the harm?” The effort is to promote understanding and healing,
to whatever degree possible, to both victims and criminals. It can be applied in any situation, including the Church.
Geske describes how she got “hooked on this approach.” As a criminal court judge, before her five years on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, she had been teaching in a prison, working with victims’ groups and community groups as a way to inform her work in the court system.
She was invited by two teachers to come to a three-day restorative-justice program in a maximum-security prison with “high-end offenders” (her term). “I actually fell in love with it!” she exclaims, and set about trying to find ways to get involved. She began running occasional programs of her own, and, to this day, leads a similar program in two maximum-security prisons.
During one of these weekend events, she might have 12 community members, she says. “They might be priests, police, judges and three survivors of violent crime meeting with murderers, rapists, armed robbers and sometimes drug dealers with long, sometimes life sentences.” (Occasionally, they are people she herself had sentenced while serving as a judge.)
Over the course of the weekend participants tell their stories—victim, criminal, community leader. “I have seen the victims’ stories absolutely transform everyone in the whole room, every time, over the three-day process.” While working in the local courts over the years, she found those weekends
were her spiritual and community volunteer work. “I always talk about finding God in this process more than anywhere else I go,” she says. It’s the reconciling heart of our faith that she encounters.