“I’ll pay for your therapy.”
My bishop spoke those words when he handed me the letter spelling out his judgment against my former pastor. I told him “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself;” I changed my mind when I found I needed weeks of nearly full-time treatment for anorexia. When I told the bishop I needed his help, he kept his word. He and his attorney treated me with respect throughout our negotiations, and he provided the resources I needed to restore my health. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but I don’t think the church would mind my sharing its existence, and my gratitude for the health I now enjoy.
So when I saw the word “restitution” in Marie Fortune’s Elements of Justice-Making, I mentally checked that item off. The church may not have offered me everything on that list, but they did offer restitution. Or did they? I’m learning that there’s a lot more to restitution than money. I’m grateful for the money and for the other actions the church took to move my healing forward. But there’s more they could have done — and it isn’t too late.
Here’s what I’ve learned about restitution.
Restitution IS NOT…
1. Charity for the victim. Charity disempowers its recipients, ignores the question of justice, and allows the giver to feel complacent and generous. But we don’t call ourselves generous when we pay off a debt — and restitution is simply a debt. When a minister of the church harms a congregant, he or she creates a debt that the church must pay.
2. Punishment for the offender. When I make a car payment, I’m not being punished; I’m just making things square. I took on the debt voluntarily when I borrowed money for a car. When the church pays restitution to a victim of abuse, no one is being punished. The church is simply making things square.
3. A way of erasing the damage. Restitution moves us toward healing, but the experience of broken trust remains. No amount of restitution can undo the past. Even with restitution, most of the journey of healing is still ahead of us. The church must respect each survivor’s right to walk that journey as she or he needs to.
1. Making things fair again. Restoring a loss. Repairing damage. Redressing a wrong. Squaring accounts. Setting things right. Making amends. Cleaning up our own mess. “Restitution” is just a fancy word for one of the most basic human experiences. Even small children know what justice feels like.
2. A way of healing all parties, not just the victim. Restitution restores or creates healthy relationships, frees the victim to move forward with healing, and gives the offender (or the offender’s institution) a deeper understanding of justice and a deeper commitment to protecting the vulnerable.
3. Hard work. It’s easy to write a check. True restitution involves patience, respect, humility, courage, persistence, and willingness to sit with uncomfortable feelings.
Restitution helps restore…
1. The victim’s tangible losses. Clergy sexual misconduct can trigger serious medical problems. Many victims can’t afford treatment on their own. Monetary restitution can help with those needs.
2. The victim’s intangible losses such as reputation, ability to form relationships, sense of belonging, faith in the church, and sense that God cares or exists at all. The church can address these wounds by listening, grieving with the victim, speaking truth, finding support within the community, and creating stronger safeguards against abuse.
3. The institution’s moral wholeness. Earlier on this blog, I wrote about Nelson Mandela’s role in bringing about a peaceful end to apartheid. The Restitution Foundation takes that work to the next step. In the spirit of ubuntu, the founders of the Restitution Foundation realized that white South Africans could never be whole if their non-white brothers and sisters still struggled with the wounds of poverty and injustice. In South Africa, restitution is the tide that lifts all boats.
Restitution is made of…
1. Money: enough to pay for the therapy and medical care to heal the wounds of abuse. Money empowers the victim to make her own decisions about treatment, and it shows the church is serious about caring for its victims. The money must be offered with no strings attached. Some settlements include a non-disparagement clause; some churches try to enforce that clause as a gag order. This is bad religion (would Jesus silence a victim of abuse?), bad PR (churches that silence their victims don’t fare well in the media), and bad judgment (it makes survivors angry and it gives us more to talk about).
2. Listening. “Make no mistake,” says the Restitution Foundation. “Listening can be hard. We do not like to be made uncomfortable or confronted with our complicity in another’s oppression.” Perhaps this, as much as anything, is why churches silence their victims: our stories confront them with their complicity in our abuse. But as uncomfortable as these conversations are, they are essential to restitution and justice. We need the church to listen to us, lament with us, and reform the structures and cultural norms that have made abuse possible.
3. Truth-telling. If secrecy and lies destroy the victim’s reputation, the truth needs to be spread at least as widely as the lies. Belated truth-telling will never fully repair the damage (remember the story of feathers in the wind), but it is still worth doing. Four years later, I have no hope of ever restoring the lost friendships, and no wish to be part of my former church — and still I would welcome an open disclosure of truth from the bishop. If he cares about my healing, telling the truth is the most important thing he could do. Liturgy can be a way of truth-telling; one survivor shared her church’s liturgy here.
Restitution is hard work because…
1. Each situation is unique. There is no “one size fits all.”
2. The church has to give up power and the right to dictate the rules of engagement. The fact is, each party has something to offer that the other needs. The church has resources to address victims’ losses. Victims and survivors have wisdom to offer the church, and something more: we can offer our forgiveness. Restitution can set all of us free.
3. The church must face its demons. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Where are the flaws in screening, training, and oversight of ministers? How does the church enable abuse of power and privilege (of clergy over lay, male over female, experience over youth, etc)? Is the church sacrificing vulnerable people to an idol of its own image? As victims and survivors speak, these stories will emerge. Church leaders will be tempted to walk away and reject these painful truths. But once the restitution process has begun, a rupture will only cause more harm to the victim. Jesus stayed on the hard road to Jerusalem; the church must do the same.
For readers who want to understand restitution more deeply, I strongly recommend the work of the Restitution Foundation. The Theological Mandate for Restitution is a good place to begin.