Sexual harm and restorative justice: the case for care-fullness

Finding support, accountability and truth-telling beyond the win-lose legal system

Photo: Pexels Photo: Pexels

Barely a month goes by without reports of sexual harm and misconduct hitting the headlines. Anabaptist groups are no exception. Yet, as individuals and institutions face a reckoning, justice for victims remains elusive.

The impulse to identify and punish offenders often ignores institutional complicity. It also fails to address how victim-survivors can reclaim their lives and receive justice. More work needs to be done to learn what constitutes true justice and how to repair harms.


This raises a question: Should Restorative Justice be used in instances of sexual harm?

To answer this question, let’s first define our terms. Restorative Justice, or RJ, offers affected parties the opportunity to come together to acknowledge and respond to harms and their aftermath.

Most RJ work focuses on answering three key questions: What harms have occurred? What needs have resulted from these harms? Whose obligation is it to address these needs and harms?

RJ often involves face-to-face dialogue. These meetings address the emotional, empowerment and informational needs of victims. They also engage the need for amends, reparations and accountability for offenders. This can include the use of peacemaking circles, victim-offender dialogues and family-group conferencing.

Used around the world, RJ has proven effective within criminal legal processes as well as outside them. Its uses have ranged from sexual-harm interventions in pre- or post-sentencing to cases out­side the legal system or where no prosecution is sought.

RJ de-centers the role of formal institutions by enabling affected parties to be more involved in truth-telling, acknowledgment and restitution. RJ is able to bypass the win-lose model of the judicial system and instead offer the opportunity for disclosure and reflection on the personal and structural impacts of sexual harm.

Interventions using RJ principles can be meaningful as symbolic forms of reparation. Survivors have identified restorative processes as key to regaining empowerment and dignity.

Likewise, perpetrators may want to address their shame in constructive, accountable and reintegrative ways. Professional service providers and community members can provide a social web for support, education and, in some cases, healing.

There are potential hazards to the use of RJ in instances of sexual harm. First, in active situations of domestic violence, incest or child sexual abuse, interactions between victims and abusers should be curtailed.

Second, harm-doers who have been involved in serial offenses should be carefully monitored for recidivism and the danger of further harm to others.

Third, RJ is never effective in cases where hierarchies of power permit abusers to have authority over those harmed.

In such cases — which often occur in work, family and church settings — RJ interventions may reinforce systems of domination and minimize admissions of abuse. Since systems of power tend to reinforce white male privilege, victims may be vulnerable due to their age, sexuality, gender or race. Perpetrators may hold positions of social or religious authority that shield them from being held accountable.

Interventions must be designed in ways that are sensitive to these power dynamics. In situations of sexual harm, RJ processes should be voluntary, power-sensitive and trauma-informed.

Guidelines for preparation, due process, confidentiality, safety, duration, outcomes and restitution should all be carefully negotiated and center the victim-survivor’s voice.

When survivors do not want face-to-face interactions, Victim Impact Statements can be used to process the repercussions of harm. Safety, acknowledgment and amends are the priorities at every step.

Finally, RJ is particularly important given that most sexual harm occurs between people who know each other. This brings to the surface relational needs that the legal system is not equipped to address. RJ can meet these needs when practiced in ways that keep support and accountability front and center.

RJ is uniquely positioned to deliver this type of justice — a justice that is more care-full.

Carolyn Stauffer is a consultant and educator in sexual trauma and recovery and associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University. She has trained sexual assault response teams, civil society groups and gender-based violence organizations on four continents.

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