Restorative Justice by Julie A. Ferraro

The crime and courts beat for media outlets has been a staple since the first printed newspaper. Having sat in the halls of justice as a journalist, I understand the need to report acts of property damage, illegal drugs, and violence to the public. Awareness of these crimes can make a community safer.

What becomes problematic is when the crimes, or the trials, are sensationalized simply to increase sales or clicks on a website. When the articles themselves are written in a biased fashion, the news staff commits a disservice to the reader, who is seen as unable to draw conclusions based solely on honest facts.

Just as journalism should not be biased, so too Christians.

When a suspect is convicted of a crime, let’s say, the judge issues a sentence from the bench—time behind bars, probation, or a fine. That conviction remains on the person’s record through life. Rather than just writing the man or woman off as “no good” until death, it is imperative that rehabilitation, including psychological counseling, be provided in order that the person may reenter society.

Too often, sadly, that doesn’t happen. The person is rejected by society, can’t create a viable life, and, often, eventually re-offends.

So it is, basically, for all of us. None of us are perfect; we all make mistakes or, as some prefer to term it, commit sins.

If, in what is being called the “cancel culture,” every misstep merited being written off the books, as it were, where would we all be?

Even Pope Francis has spoken against the prevalence of cancel culture within the framework of the church. During an address to the Vatican diplomatic corps in 2022, he pointed out how such attitudes may seem to defend diversity, while actually negating the unique perspective of the individual.

The media almost immediately critiqued Pope Francis’s words. In fact, the media plays a huge role in targeting those threatened to be “canceled”—but only because their viewers or readers are drawn to those stories.

The Christian mindset of offering mercy, support, and assistance to those who might not be able to change their lives alone must kick in here. By not giving the media what they seek— attention—the “cancel culture” Pope Francis described could be gradually eliminated.

Yet, human beings are the sort that naturally like to stick their noses in other people’s business. A prime example is last summer’s civil trial pitting Johnny Depp against Amber Heard. Multiple media stations broadcast the proceedings live over the course of weeks. Every bizarre detail brought to light was fodder for discussion in print, on television screens, or on social media platforms. The seriousness of the subject matter—domestic violence—was parodied and mocked, as well. Both parties were threatened with being “cancelled,” of losing their careers.

No one—Christians especially—needs to fill their heads, their souls, with the sensationalism generated by the greedy media. It only warps one’s perspective and increases divisiveness in the home, the workplace, and the community. Forcing people to “take sides” instead of coming together in a unified effort of encouragement violates Christ’s edict to “love one another.”

Instead of perpetuating the negatives of the situation, why did no one stand up and offer these troubled individuals a chance to move forward with respect and dignity? As public figures, their lives are beset by fans seeking selfies or autographs, those who would cling to their coattails and make a profit off their misery.

And, yes, I mean the attorneys, among others.

Having sat in many courtrooms, I have seen how a trial can be little more than legalized theater, with the lawyers as the lead actors. The judge and jury are the audience, presented with only the information that will sway them to the desired result.

Again, it comes down to bias. If the facts in a court case were presented without being sensationalized or manipulated, a jury could better render an unbiased decision.

The attorneys, though, wouldn’t permit that. They conveniently leave out key questions or exhibits, or emphasize other tidbits that actually mean little. They’ll rail over a technicality of procedure and request a dismissal, or appeal a verdict based on a juror’s attitude.

In the end, win or lose, they collect their exorbitant fees.

The media also reaps the benefits of such high-profile trials, with increased advertising and viewership. The “loser” in the case is lambasted and dismissed from the public eye permanently, the winner praised with sympathetic platitudes.

It is of no consequence that the parties to the case must endure the aftermath alone.

Christians of all levels in society should stand against these practices. Those who are in a position to offer the “canceled” or the cast-off individual meaningful employment should do so readily. (One thinks of Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, an organization that provides jobs and rehabilitation services to former gang members.) Others who are able to provide other types of support should lend their skills and expertise to help mend broken lives.

For those who might think the “cancel culture” is a temporary aberration, look to American history in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy warped what had been the House Un-American Activities Committee into televised Senate hearings that placed innocent people in the precarious position of having to “name names” of suspected Communists or be placed on a “blacklist” and prevented from working in their chosen field.

For Christians, it must never be about labeling someone a “sinner” or “evil” or “criminal.” We must remember the old saying, “Love the sinner, not the sin.”

A person’s talent, their ability to hold a suitable job and support themselves and their family, cannot be summarily negated because of any one particular mistake. A convicted criminal who has served the determined sentence, a politician who failed to follow through on campaign promises, even clergy and their bishops or superiors who failed in their handling of the church’s abuse crisis, should be offered ways to make amends or restitution to their victims, then assisted to move forward with their lives in appropriate ways.

For example, those who have been prosecuted for drug crimes may need to participate in addiction counseling and live in a controlled setting for an extended period. Politicians may never be elected to public office again, but could work with charitable institutions to help their former constituents who were disregarded in favor of moneyed lobbyists. Priests and bishops credibly accused of abuse or cover-ups should be removed from ministry, undergo extensive psychological treatment, and follow all requisites of the law, but could still do some form of work—even gardening—to contribute to the betterment of the planet.

If God does not abandon us when we make mistakes, we should not abandon others because of theirs. ♦

Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Atchison, Kansas. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Limestone Correctional Facility, Harvest, Alabama. US Department of Education / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
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