Forgive and forget?

Last week I met the new chief executive of the Forgiveness Project, now chaired by my predecessor at the RJC, Lizzie Nelson. Among other issues, we discussed how forgiveness relates to restorative justice. When asked by a friend when I first joined the RJC, this was something that I really struggled to explain. Eighteen months later it remains a challenging issue.

The first thing to note is that victims do not have to forgive their offender to take part in restorative justice. This may be obvious to those working in the field, but it’s a common misconception and a barrier to people taking part.

It’s also really important not to create a hierarchy among victims, with forgiveness as the ultimate goal of a successful restorative meeting. Restorative justice is a very personal process and everybody’s motivations for doing it and route through it will be different. We should be careful about applauding forgiveness if we risk inadvertently rebuking those who don’t forgive the person who has harmed them.

For many, the very idea of forgiving someone who has caused them harm is unthinkable. That’s a perfectly valid position, and it’s equally valid to feel angry. The point of restorative justice is to be able to express emotions in a controlled environment, whatever they are.

For victims who do choose to forgive, often it has little to do with the offender – it’s not about making them feel better or letting them off the hook, as some people assume. Instead it’s about enabling the victim to let go of the offence and move on.

Take Laura, for example. She says – in her interview in the current issue of Resolution – that she forgave the man who sexually abused her as a child. Why? It was, she said: “…because I didn’t want to carry around what he’d done to me anymore. I’d moved on, and forgiving him was for me, not for him.” Forgiveness can empower victims every bit as much, if not more, than it can help offenders. Indeed for many offenders, their victim’s forgiveness can be difficult to take.

Forgiveness can be an important part of restorative justice and when it happens it can be extremely powerful. But it’s complicated – some people want to achieve it, while others have no interest. And we all need to recognise that is their choice.

Laura appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC2 on Thursday 22 October - watch the interview here until 19 November 2015 (Laura's story starts at 20mins and 20s) and read Laura's story on the BBC website and in The Mirror.