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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Priest discusses criminal justice, reconciliation

As a part of a series of events from the Center for Social Concerns on the “Challenge of Peace,” Fr. David Kelly, the executive director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, delivered a lecture entitled “Violence and Trauma: Building a Community of Hope through a Restorative Framework.” The lecture was addressed to an audience that consisted of a large number of students participating in Urban Plunge, an experimental-learning course designed to engage students with poverty in U.S. cities.

Chris Collins
Chris Collins

Kelly has worked on issues of reconciliation in Chicago since the 1970s, and he said his long tenure was an important aspect of his work.

“I think my claim to fame is that I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Kelly said. “After a while, you do it for so long that people kind of recognize you and say, ‘Man, you were there before, weren’t you?’ … And if there’s a gift I have, it’s persistence. I just can’t see myself doing anything different because as of yet the issues are still out there.”

He started his work on fighting violence and incarceration in Cincinnati after he graduated college and said the people he worked with represented a way for him to live out his priesthood. He then went on to work in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in 1978 and has been working at Kolbe House, the jail ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago, ever since.

“It’s a place that’s formed me in more ways than I could imagine,” Kelly said.

For many years, Kelly said he worked and lived at a parish that was located along a gang boundary and remembers officiating at many funerals for young people who were murdered.

“Often times, when I did the funeral and would accompany those families who had just lost their child … at the very same time I was working for Kolbe House which is jail ministry,” Kelly said. “As you know, in the United States we try our juveniles as adults so I would accompany a lot of families who would lose their children to extreme sentences … There were times when I would know both the one who had been harmed, and the one had done the harm.”

Kelly said there was one such a situation in which one young man who he knew shot another young man he knew. He visited the one who had been shot in the hospital and visited the one who had done the shooting in jail, and he said that both men knew he was going to visit the other. When the case ultimately made it to court, Kelly said he felt that the focus was more on punishment and less on the well-being of the people involved.

“I couldn’t help but think, ‘There’s something wrong with this.’ At no point along that way … did anyone ask [the young man who had been shot], ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you okay?’ There was no attention given at all to any kind of healing,” Kelly said.

Precious Blood was founded in 2002 as a “restorative justice hub,” Kelly said, and the five pillars of Precious Blood are “radical hospitality, accompaniment, relentless engagement of young people and their families, relentless engagement of stakeholders and systems, and collaboration.”

Kelly said he sees a parallel between the work of reconciliation and the Triduum of the Easter season, noting that Holy Thursday and Good Friday are quite busy when compared to Holy Saturday. For him, it is impossible to move those who are grieving past their grief in a short period of time.

“There’s not much on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is a liturgical void … That’s where the work of the Church ought to be. In that Holy Saturday moment. We have witnessed the trauma of the Crucifixion, and we hope and long for the Resurrection. But the Resurrection’s not yet … We have to be willing to stay in the muddled mess of Holy Saturday,” Kelly said.

Reconciliation is an issue of “remembering rightly” and engaging, Kelly said. One of the strategies that his organization utilizes is a circle involving a perpetrator of the crime, the victim and other community members. The people in the circle spend time building relationships and a sense of community with one another before the perpetrator and victim discuss the crime, he said.

Kelly said there was a situtation of a young man who burglarized the home of a police officer in the neighborhood. After the people in the circle exchanged stories and the perpetrator apologized for his actions, the conversation ultimately came to the question of what the actual harm of the burglary was. The victim said that his son no longer felt safe in his own home, and the next question was how the perpetrator could heal that harm.

The victim said he would like the perpetrator to return to school because it seemed like he had potential. The victim agreed to return to school and with the help of another person in the circle, a retired school principal, was able to return to school even though he had been previously expelled, Kelly said. This arrangement took the place of a court sentence and ended with the victim offering to coach the perpetrator in basketball.

For Kelly, that offer of mentorship would have been impossible without the circle.

“In that circle, the victim became a mentor. I’ve been to court a thousand times. I never ever seen that happen in my life. I’ve never seen a court wrestle with, ‘What was the real harm?’ … That’s what can happen in a circle. You remember in order to heal. And what that did for our community, that gathering spurred other victim/offender circles,” Kelly said.

Ultimately, the United States’ approach to criminal justice is too tied up in notions of punishment, Kelly said.

“As a church, as communities, we can do better,” Kelly said. “But we still are punishing, trying to punish our way out of this. Criminal justice, crime and harm, is not a criminal justice issue: it’s a public health issue. We’ve got to treat this as though it was an epidemic and say, ‘What is the epidemic and how do we bring healing to this?’

“Somehow, someway, we as a church, we as communities of faith, we can do better than this. We’ve got to commit to what’s hard, we’ve got to get proximate, and we’ve got to really wrestle with some of this.”