Toward Justice and Healing - A blog of the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing which presents substantive pieces at the intersection of restorative justice and Catholic faith.
Criminal Justice, Institutional Harm, Racial Justice, Restorative Justice

Save the Date: A National Catholic Restorative Justice Conference, October 5-7, 2023

Save the date! A National Catholic Restorative Justice Conference will be held October 5-7, 2023 that brings together Catholic ministry leaders, legal professionals, people directly impacted by harm, crime, and incarceration, to build capacity within the Church to advance healing approaches to harm, crime, and injustice. Join us on the campus of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis to build relationships, knowledge, and skills for engaging restorative justice practices in light of the Catholic tradition and experience.

Conference Theme: “Journeying Toward Restoration”

Co-hosted by Catholic Mobilizing Network and the St. Thomas School of Law Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing, the conference takes on the theme, “Journeying Toward Restoration.” Ever aware of past and ongoing violations of dignity and relationships, “Journeying toward Restoration” signifies renewed promise for restorative justice as an instrument for human flourishing both within and beyond the institutional Catholic Church.

Focal Areas

By gathering in the Twin Cities, a locus of national and ecclesial wounds, the conference invites participants to create pathways of renewed encounter and human flourishing in the following areas:

  • Criminal Legal System Transformation 
  • Sexual Abuse in the Church and Healing
  • Racial Injustice and Healing 
  • Harms Against Native Peoples

Watch for updates on the conference schedule as well as registration, sponsorship and exhibitor opportunities.




Restorative Justice

Honoring Veterans with Restorative Justice – Hank Shea

Veterans Day will be celebrated throughout the country on Friday, November 11th. For some, it will just be another day at the end of the work week.  For others, it will be a paid holiday from their jobs. But we hope for many that it will provide an opportunity to, in some way, honor all American veterans, living or dead, in gratitude for their service and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.

There is one group of veterans particularly deserving of our collective attention and action. For as long as veterans have returned from war, some have brought their war home with them, bearing invisible wounds in the form of post-traumatic stress and other traumas. Untreated, these echoes of war – manifesting in substance and alcohol abuse and addiction, often leading to self-destructive and harmful behavior – reverberate through society, destroying not only the lives of these heroes, but victimizing their families and the communities they fought to protect.

As a result, large numbers of veterans in past generations have fallen into and been left behind in the criminal justice system upon their return home. Do you know that roughly one-third of U.S. military veterans report that they have been arrested and jailed at least once in their lives?  (

For far too long our nation failed to honor our millions of veterans who served in Vietnam. We must not allow that grave error to occur again. For the last 18 years, a new generation of veterans has been returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and bringing their war home with them, creating the risk of an unprecedented public health and public safety crisis if left unaddressed.

Unlike prior generations, this group of 3 million veterans, which include 300,000 women, has fought the two longest wars in our nation’s history – mostly simultaneously. Without the draft that we relied on in past wars, the burden of serving and fighting has fallen on fewer shoulders of an all-volunteer force, with many vets of the current generation serving multiple combat tours – translating into much higher rates of post-traumatic stress and other traumatic injuries than prior generations. Our nation trained these ordinary citizens to serve our country by fighting and even killing others in distant lands and they bear deep visible and invisible wounds as a result. The suicide rate for veterans remains a national calamity. Every hurting veteran needs and deserves our collective help in the form of therapeutic treatment of their ills. Veterans Day gives us the chance to recognize their needs and our obligation to act on their behalf.

Minnesota already is leading the way. ( ) On June 30, 2021, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA).

It represents landmark legislation for healing and restoring veterans who become involved in the criminal justice system. It substitutes court-supervised treatment and rehabilitation for purely punitive measures to offer the veteran a path to redemption – and restoration as an asset to the communities they served.

The Veterans Defense Project (VDP), a Minnesota-based non-profit veterans advocacy group, was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the VRJA. (   The VDP now is helping fully implement the VRJA throughout Minnesota and expand all or part of its groundbreaking aspects to other states.

On Veterans Day, the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing ( and the VDP will co-sponsor a special event “Honoring Veterans with Restorative Justice” at the school’s downtown Minneapolis location from 4:00 – 6:00pm. The event also will be livestreamed throughout the country. The program’s purpose is to highlight why so many veterans need restoration and healing from their service-related traumas. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and VDP President Brock Hunter, who both helped draft the VRJA, will describe the role that veterans’ treatment courts and Minnesota’s new law can play in meeting that need. The audience will hear from Rep. Sandra Feist and Sen. Zach Duckworth how the VRJA became law in a divided legislature through dedicated bipartisan efforts, something our country clearly needs more of right now. Finally, Berlynn Fleury and Tony Miller, two Marine and Army veterans who have graduated from local veterans’ treatment courts, will tell their inspiring stories of overcoming substantial challenges to lead meaningful, productive lives. The event is free but registration is necessary here. ( )

We hope that many fellow citizens will take the time to attend or watch this worthwhile event. If you do, you also will be able to hear about the transformative powers of restorative justice from others, such as Monsignor Chad Gion’s dual role as a Chaplain for the North Dakota Army National Guard and the Pastor of North Dakota’s Catholic Indian Mission.

If you attend in person, and attend the reception following the event, you will be able to meet and thank Vietnam and other veterans who have never received adequate recognition for their service. You will be able to speak with Lawton Nuss, a Marine veteran, VDP board member, and a former Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court, who gave up his top-ranking judicial position in mid-term in order to devote all his time to helping justice-involved vets. Finally, you can meet and express gratitude to Dominic Skawiniak, a 2020 St. John’s University graduate, Army National Guard officer, and first year UST Law student, who during August 2021 led his platoon in guarding part of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, not far from where a suicide bomber killed 13 of his fellow American servicemembers and 79 Afghan civilians.

As a nation, we will never be able to fully repay the debt that we owe our veterans but as you contemplate how to spend your time on Veterans Day, we leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, adopted in part as the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs motto:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… .”


Hank Shea is an Army veteran, a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a fellow at its Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing, and the Vice Chair of the Veterans Defense Project’s board of directors.


A Year of Blessings and Impact – IRJH Celebrates its First Anniversary

The Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH) officially launched September 8, 2021 and what a year it has been. We could not be more grateful for the ways in which this work, which remains vital and relevant, has been blessed. Over the past 12 months, IRJH initiated and hosted conversations on a variety of topics related to restorative justice and healing, including programs: on the intersection of racial justice and restorative justice; societal polarization; the wisdom and light from victim-survivors, the emerging virtual avenues now open to restorative justice; and a conversation with civic and religious leaders of the Twin Cities regarding the need for greater justice and healing. Here is a link to the playlist that includes these programs:

  • Launch of Law School Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing
  • Exploring the Intersection of Racial Justice & Restorative Justice
  • Harm and Hope in a Polarized World
  • Wisdom from the Wound – A Conversation with Victim Survivors and Advocates
  • When the Practice Pivoted – Restorative Justice in a Virtual World
  • Justice and Healing for a Wound Community

Our new Restorative Justice, Law, and Healing course – the first of its kind in Minnesota – is now underway as we prepare the next generation of lawyers to utilize the light and wisdom of restorative justice to meet the needs of future clients and the broader community.

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Institutional Harm

A Journey Toward Justice and Healing – Chad Gion

Pope Francis arrives in Canada | Catholic News Agency

This summer 21 people from three North Dakota Indian reservations travelled to Edmonton, AB.  I had the honor of joining them.  We travelled to bear witness as Pope Francis made a penitential pilgrimage across Canada.  At every stop, the Pope apologized for the Catholic Church’s participation in the Canadian government’s effort to eradicate Indigenous culture.

Our group was present for three public Papal events around Edmonton: the apology at Maskwacis on July 23, the Mass in Edmonton the morning of the 24th and the Pope’s visit to the Lake St. Ann, the evening of the 24th.  The Mass and the visit to Lake St. Ann were beautiful.  Most impactful though was the event at Maskwacis.

From 1880’s through most of the 20th century, the federal government of Canada required all Indigenous children to attend residential schools, organized and sponsored by the government.  If families would not submit their children were taken by force.  The residential school staff, whether religious or secular, violently suppressed the speaking of Indigenous languages.  They forced haircuts on boys with long hair.  Connection with family was severely limited.  Hygiene was poor, as was the food.  Physical and sexual abuse were rampant.

Catholic leaders in Canada engaged the resources of the Church in the operations of these schools, deploying religious orders to carry out the task.  The goal was ostensibly education, but in fact was the destruction of Indigenous culture.  The efforts of the government and those who aided it would later be described as “cultural genocide” by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Committee established to confront the historic injustice of these schools.

Most of the members of our group were survivors of residential schools in the United States.  While traveling to Edmonton, the travelers were invited to share why they had accepted the invitation to make the journey.  Most who spoke shared stories of suffering and abuse.

The nature of the residential school system in the United States was not identical to that of Canada.  Both were primarily concerned with the elimination of traditional Indigenous culture.  Where Canada used overt force, the United States manipulated tribal communities by making the reception of treaty-promised resources like food, housing, education, and medical care conditions of sending children to state- or church-run residential schools.

At a time when many European immigrants were looking to integrate into American culture as quickly as possible, Indigenous were expected to do the same.  Members of our group shared stories that are familiar to anyone aware of the history of the residential school system.  Hearing them tell of the abuse shook me out of the insensitivity of shallow familiarity.  We could see these elders here and imagine them then, children as innocent and uncomprehending as my 6 year old niece, thrust into circumstances entirely foreign and terrifying.  One elder shared her story of arriving at the school and being violently punished every time she spoke her language, the only language she knew.  She could say nothing as she had no way of expressing herself that would not lead to punishment.  Her story of abuse pivoted in an instant to subversion and defiance when she said that even as the religious running the school tried to make her forget her language, she did not.  The children would secretly speak to each other in their own language.  Older children would comfort the younger, especially the newest arrivals to the school, as they learned to conform to the residential school system.

We arrived in Maskwacis early, as the crowds were expected to surge to as much as 15,000.  In the end, this was a vast overestimation.  The site of the meeting was a powwow arena, a feature to be found on reservations across North America.  Those who made the journey from North Dakota later emphasized how important this was to them.  That Pope Francis made his apology in the dirt, as it were.  Indeed it was in the dirt.  Powwow grounds are not used for religious ceremonies, but for a celebration of culture.  At summer powwows across the Great Plains, as the sun begins to set, one can readily see rising dust from the movement of dancing feet striking the prairie soil.

There is also a note of defiance in meeting at a powwow arena.  The culture celebrated here is the very culture the Church had worked to eliminate.  The peak, to my mind, was the moments after the Pope arrived at the arena.  The Holy Father took his seat on the dais.  Shortly thereafter, the chiefs, leaders and delegations processed in in a “grand entry”, a normal part of a powwow.  It is an egalitarian moment wherein everyone present is welcome to dance into the arena, regardless of dress, race, or culture of origin.  It is a way for everyone to actively participate in the celebration.  In this specific context, the grand entry was supposed to be limited to chiefs, leaders, and tribal delegations.  In point of fact, no one who got up and stood in line was denied a place in the procession.  This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that the members of our group from Standing Rock simply got up, joined the grand entry, danced in with everyone else- no permission, no questions.  At the conclusion of the grand entry, immediately prior to the Pope’s apology, a victory song was sung.  Drummers drummed and sang, dancers in regalia danced.  It was a song of victory for surviving.  After centuries of oppression and forced assimilation, they had persevered.  It was a subversion of the narrative of who “won”.  Immediately following the song of victory, the Pope began his apology for the Church’s role in Canada’s effort to eliminate Indigenous culture.

As the Pope offered his apology, most listened in solemn silence.  The Pope spoke in his native Spanish and an interpreter presented his words in English.  Around me, sobs could be heard, but most responses were subdued.  As his apology continued, silently shed tears could be seen on the cheeks of some.  But many received it with little or no response at all.  For most, this was not a cathartic moment.  It was a time to listen and judge.  Is this sincere?  Is this enough?  Does it acknowledge the full nature of the horror hundreds of thousands of children experienced?  In the end, it could not.  Nothing could.  But it was a substantive step toward justice and healing.  The Indigenous community no longer needed to carry the memories of their suffering alone.  Because the Pope was there, the world was listening and now knew what they had endured.

For some Indigenous leaders, it was the culmination of decades of work with the local bishops.  The Church in Canada had been in dialogue with Indigenous leaders for years in a hope to build ties and develop trust.  For those leaders, this moment represented a very significant step in a long unfolding process.  For many, though, and most of the world, the horrors of the residential school system in Canada is a relatively new, something they were just beginning to process.  This tension was clear when, after the Pope’s apology, Chief Littlechild, himself a residential school survivor, presented Pope Francis with a headdress.  The gift was a natural expression of his gratitude and respect to the Pope.  It communicated that the Chief recognized Pope Francis as an honorable leader.  Chief Littlechild has been involved in this work for decades.  For many, many others, though, his gift was incomprehensible, even a betrayal.

The next day former National Chief Phil Fontaine spoke to the crowd gathered for Mass in the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.  He was one of those who had been working with Canadian bishops for decades to bring to light the full horror of the residential school system.  He spoke to Indigenous people and encouraged them to heal.  And for healing, he said, there must be forgiveness.  He spoke without notes and from the heart.  But not everyone is where he is.  Many are still learning about the facts of what transpired; forgiveness is distant.  Like Chief Littlechild, Chief Fontaine is regarded as a sellout by many for his willingness to engage in dialogue and calling for forgiveness.  The journey to healing is circuitous and everyone walks it at their own pace.

On the bus ride back to North Dakota, everyone was invited to share their experience, positive or negative.  All who spoke shared that they were returning home grateful they had made the journey.  Several spoke of healing and feeling a sense of belonging in the Church.  After everyone on the bus who wanted to share had done so, the elder who had shared her story of abuse for speaking her language asked if she could offer a prayer.  She asked if she could do so in the language of her childhood, her people.  While she prayed, I felt I was witness to God doing something very beautiful.  On a journey sponsored by the Church, led by a priest, she prayed in the very language that the Church had worked to destroy.  She prayed as a Native American and a Catholic.

The success of restorative justice hinges on providing those harmed with a space to give voice to the harm.  There are formal ways in which this is done.  Much more often though, this work is done informally within the network of relationships in our lives.  As the hurt body is oriented to healing, so to is the hurt soul.  The work of processing harm is as natural as the knitting of bones.  Healing the broken heart requires an intentionality, though, that is not necessary in the healing of the body.  So we talk about our suffering with those we hope will listen with attentive empathy.  Such sharing furthers the healing that is occurring in our hearts.  Empathetic listening is a gift we can offer one another, whether it be the formal sharing of a healing circle, the supportive care of family and friends, or a group of residential school survivors sharing their stories with one another as they roll across the Canadian prairie.

For me, it is in that sharing that Jesus revealed Himself most clearly on the journey.  To witness my traveling companions share their stories, pray together over the days we shared, hear the Pope apologize, and return to their homes with a renewed hope and trust that God loves them only confirms the deepest beliefs I have about who God is and how he works.  God looks with favor on his lowly servants.  He casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  He fills the hungry with good things and the rich he sends away empty.  He came to the aid of his servants and he remembered his promise of mercy, as he does for all who cry out to him in their need.  It was a blessed adventure, one I thank God I was able to join.

Monsignor Chad Gion, a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck, serves as pastor of the Indian Mission at Standing Rock in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Gion also serves as a chaplain for the North Dakota National Guard. Additionally, Monsignor Gion serves on the advisory board of the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.