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A Story of Healing

Jackie Katounas is a restorative justice practitioner and advocate working with Prison Fellowship New Zealand. She shares this firsthand account of a meeting between a man convicted of murder and the sister of his victim.

I have never been able to fully understand the resistance to restorative justice processes within our criminal justice system. People seem to want to take ownership of a victim's hurt and trauma without considering what it is the victim needs or wants. 

So often I have seen victims of crime begin a healing process that can only begin with meeting the perpetrator face to face.  Victims of crime need to be heard and given an opportunity to have direct dialogue with the person responsible for causing the hurt. Some victims are keen to enter into this process. Here is one example.

In 1997, a 19 year old boy killed a man. In 2004, the sister of the deceased requested an opportunity to meet face to face with this young offender. Although she lives in Australia, she had a planned trip to New Zealand and wished to explore this option whilst she was here on holiday. 

I first met with the inmate to assess whether a face-to-face meeting would be positive and safe for all who would enter into the process. To do so, I travelled to Wellington with Rex Couper, an associate Chaplain at HB Prison, who had agreed to be my recorder during the process.

As I entered Mt Crawford Prison in Wellington, I was abruptly reminded what a dismal and bleak environment prisons are. Although I enter into many prisons throughout the country because of my work, and although it has been 10 years since I myself was incarcerated, I was shocked at my own reaction.

I remembered all too clearly how my life at that time had no hope or purpose. This intimate knowledge of what it is like to be an “inmate” reminded me of how far the Lord has brought me by his grace. 

I was also surprised when this young bright faced man entered into the room. He didn’t look like a killer (he didn't have “killer” tattooed across his forehead!), and as I looked into his eyes I felt a huge sadness for the waste of life -- not only his victim's but his as well.  

I told him who I was and why I was there. A huge smile broke out across his face, and he said, “This is something that I have dreamed about for a long time.” He explained that he had yearned for an opportunity to face this family. He wanted to be accountable to them for what he had done all those years ago. He wanted to say how sorry he was. I was very impressed with his positive attitude and his outlook on the future. 

As we returned to Napier, my mind was swimming with questions:

  • Why does this woman want to meet him?

  • What could they possibly say to one another?

  • How would I feel in their situation?

Those questions led me to reflect on God's loving grace. I became so aware that it can only be through the grace of our Lord that such wounds can be healed.  

When the time for the meeting came, I travelled again to Wellington to meet with the victim’s sister (I’ll call her Susan for reasons of privacy). Susan was very nervous and fearful as she looked toward this meeting, but she was also determined to do it. When I asked her why, her response astounded me.

“If he is to have any sort of future," she said, "I think meeting me might help him move on and put it behind him.”

Hang on a minute, I thought. Where is this woman’s anger? There was no anger or bitterness in Susan just a huge sadness for her loss and also the offender's. Her generosity of spirit amazed me. 

On the day of the conference, it was typical Wellington weather, cold, wet and uninviting. The prison felt just like the weather, and some officers expressed scepticism about how this would work out. However, I trusted God and the process, and was quietly confident this was going to be a great conference in spite of the butterflies in my tummy. 

Present at the meeting were Susan, a friend of hers who is also a counsellor, the offender, Rex, the chaplain of the prison, and myself. The conference started awkwardly as most do, but once the dialogue started it just flowed. I really didn’t have to do much at all. It just happened before my eyes. It was awesome. 

I won’t go into details of their conversation, but at the close of the conference Susan said something very profound to the offender: “Through this tragedy you and I are connected for life. Don’t let my brother's life be for nothing. I want you to get out of here and make something of your life.” Then Susan hugged the man who had murdered her brother and wished him well.  

Once everyone had left the room I was alone with the offender. I looked into his eyes and was prompted to put my arms around him as he sobbed his heart out. All I could do was hold him and cry, too. There were no words to say.

I have spoken to Susan since she has returned to Australia. She feels she can fully move on with her life now. She is glad she went through the restorative justice process.  

When I witness these miracles happening is it any wonder I’m so passionate about my work? I feel privileged and honoured to be an instrument as God administers his wonderful Grace. 

Some people believe that restorative justice processes are not suitable for serious crimes. My answer to that is very simple: “Come work with me for one day.”

Jackie Katounas
August 2004

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