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Standing with those left behind


When the president of Italy pardoned Pope John Paul II’s would-be assassin last May, many press commentators were befuddled. Michael Dobbs, a foreign investigative reporter for The Washington Post with a longstanding interest in the case, called the development “disturbing.” How would the truth ever be known, Dobbs lamented, now that Mehmet Ali Agca had lost any incentive to come clean?

If some were disturbed, Catholic chaplains and thousands of volunteers who serve in jails and prisons were inspired. Detention ministers live with the need for forgiveness on a daily basis. In the Jubilee Year the pope encouraged the church, through the dramatic pardon of Agca, to look with mercy and understanding on the prison population.

Yet few victims of violent crime have the personal or spiritual resources of the Holy Father, and struggle painfully to forgive those who have harmed them or their loved ones. Church leaders must hear their voice, as they consider the growing phenomenon of imprisonment.

Yvonne Rivera Huitron is one of those voices challenging the church to mature. In 1993, Huitron’s younger brother Ray was murdered in Arcadia, Calif. He was 22. It was a shockingly random, senseless crime. The shooter did not know Ray, and no motive was ever established. There were no drug or gang variables.

Ray Rivera left behind a strong, proud family, which now became tortured. How can a good God allow such tragic loss of innocent human life? How to overcome the sense of divine abandonment, the instinctive pain, rage and desire for revenge? Crime affects, not only the victim, but also the family left behind.

“What my brother could have been still haunts me,” said Huitron, a campus minister at Alverno Catholic High School in Sierra Madre, Calif. The oldest of five, she was something of a second mom for her little brother. “Sometimes there is a stinging pain from the joy taken from me and my family.”

Huitron entered a period of deep depression. She sought out various priests and deacons, but they were unprepared to offer her specialized support. Fortunately, the lay director of religious education at her parish encouraged Huitron to stay active in the church. That was decisive. “I felt safe there,” Huitron said, “because it was a faith context where I fit in.”

If Huitron was able to get through the day, still there was no inner peace, religious resolution or healing. She was restless, haunted spiritually. “I knew I needed to forgive my brother’s murderer, but I just couldn’t do it. I was wrestling with God and needed guidance.” Her friend convinced her to apply to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to complete an undergraduate degree in theology.

Communion of saints

Buoyed by the resources of scripture and Catholic tradition, Huitron was able to begin to make sense of the murder of her brother, as well as confront her own inability to forgive the killer. Perhaps most important, she gradually experienced reconciliation with God through the church. Huitron happily recalled how the doctrine of the communion of the saints opened her heart “like an epiphany,” as she realized for the first time that she still had available to her a continuing relationship with her beloved Ray.

Huitron graduated in 1997 and is pursuing a master’s degree in theology. Seven years after the crime, a process of transformation has begun. “This was the most difficult experience of my life and yet, amazingly, it has become a blessing. It has directed my life in a new way, because I was able to forgive those who trespassed against me.”

Huitron is anything but naive. She must try daily to forgive the young man, whose name and face she has blocked out. But she has no doubt how far she has come, by the grace of God. “Initially, I didn’t feel I had the right, as Ray’s sister, to forgive. Now -- at least on most days -- I know my brother is my biggest fan.”

Huitron’s journey would be remarkable enough if it ended on a note of personal healing and transformation. But this is also a story of religious call. Somewhat reluctantly, she finds herself being led to articulate a vision of how the church might better minister in response to violent crime, incarceration and capital punishment.

The present framework for detention ministry, which focuses on the incarcerated, may be too narrow to adequately respond to the complex dynamics surrounding crime and punishment. Huitron argues for a more integral model, which addresses the needs not only of prisoners but also of victims, as well as family members and loved ones associated with both victims and prisoners.

“Right now, victims and their family members are an afterthought,” she said, and many report alienation from the church as a result. “After my brother was killed, our friends and many members of the family and church were afraid of us.”

Huitron suggests that dioceses and local parishes be more intentional in offering support groups and services for family members of both victims and offenders. An occasional invitation should even be made to bring together both camps.

Though Huitron was inspired by the pope’s example of a personal meeting with his would-be assassin, she herself is not quite ready to meet with the man who killed her brother, nor with his family. “Someday,” she said. In the meantime, “we need the church to walk with us, to establish an authentic relationship, to welcome us.”

As Huitron tried to reconstruct her life over the past seven years, she faced the additional pressure of responding to advocates and family members who raised the issue of the death penalty. Inevitably, Huitron noted, the death penalty “becomes a defining question” for family survivors of capital offenses. It is a question that not only divides the country, but the church and even families themselves. “Victims’ families can be made to feel their case is more important if it carries the death penalty, or that they don’t really love the deceased enough unless they support the death penalty.”

Church leaders need to recognize this phenomenon if they hope to be successful in their opposition to the death penalty. Huitron agrees with her church in its controversial public stance, but eschews bumper stickers. Instead, she suggests that, from the perspective of victims’ family members, it is not first a political or legal issue but one of human dignity, faith and pastoral care.

Bearing the cross

“Let the church help victims’ family members be healed by supporting our efforts to forgive,” she said. “Help us to remain rooted in the body of Christ.” Then family members and loved ones may be free to join the church in its opposition to capital punishment. “If you haven’t helped us bear the cross, then how can you ask us to help you reach out to the ones we perceive as the enemy?”

Huitron’s personal journey and articulate testimony challenge the church, especially those concerned with detention ministry, to examine the existing paradigm. Happily, the hierarchy has been listening, and last November the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major statement on crime and criminal justice. Titled “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” it integrates crime victims’ concerns in an unprecedented way. Acknowledging that the church’s witness to victims and their families must be “more focused and comprehensive,” the bishops “encourage and stand with victims and those who assist them.”

The pastoral statement lists several concrete suggestions for action in its appendix. For example, Catholics should be ready to support existing local programs that train people for victim ministry, working with other churches, civic and community groups to form networks of interest. In addition, parishes themselves should consider initiating victim ministry programs, “with the goal of having a consistent and comprehensive presence to those affected by crime.” The document may well be effective in healing the alienation many crime victims feel toward the church as well as animating new pastoral initiatives.

Pope John Paul II proclaimed last July 9 a day of Jubilee in the prisons of the world, and that day celebrated Mass at Rome’s crowded Regina Coeli prison. The goal was to bring the Jubilee Year vision of forgiveness and reconciliation inside the walls, and so to underscore their inclusion in the body of Christ. As the prison population in the United States reaches a mind-boggling 2 million, this is a message the church must heed.

Compelling voices like that of Yvonne Huitron remind the church that it is time to embrace a more integral paradigm, one that promotes broader reconciliation in American society. In this regard the Catholic bishops, in their new statement, have given the church in the United States a marvelous gift to celebrate the end of the Jubilee Year. Now the challenge shifts to local dioceses and parishes.

Jesuit Fr. Robert W. McChesney is director of the Jesuit Refugee Service Immigration Detention Project in Los Angeles and is a member of the advisory board for the Office of Detention Ministries of the Los Angeles archdiocese. His e-mail address is rmcchesn@lmu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001