In Puritan America, a married woman’s illicit affair with a minister landed her in jail. After her release, Hester Prynne was sentenced to forever wear a big red “A” on her dress. 

Nearly 375 years later, the U.S. continues to be scandalized, tantalized and perplexed by sex, especially about sex offenders. Tough on crime, we’re still struggling to learn: 

  • Why domestic violence and incest are so under-reported by victims? 
  • Why most people think every sexual offender is a serial rapist? 
  • Why, even among therapists, many continue to believe sex-offenders to be untreatable? 
  • Why supervision after offenders’ release tends to-wards punitive rather than restorative? 

It’s time to bring the subject of sex crime out of the dark ages, time to help victims shed the shame and trauma of their experience. It’s also time to allow offenders an opportunity to show they can change, make amends and start to earn back trust and acceptance from society.

The Magic of Victim-Offender Reconciliation

The Magic of Victim-Offender Reconciliation

Can a repeat sex abuser establish a bond of trust with a rape victim? Even if possible, would you want that? What value might arise from it? In this day and age, many of us prefer to live in a bubble where offenders are never forgiven and victims never get over their trauma.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns are important for having created turbulence in the backwater of American morality. Allegations of wrongdoing stir the sediment, and that's a good thing. But banishment of the offender - whether by courts or public opinion - does little to settle the disturbance. Likewise, paying off the victim, by itself, can be like bandaging a festering wound without antiseptic. The challenge with #MeToo, and perhaps for all of us, is to figure out how to clear the poluted water and clean the wound, not just wait for things to settle by themselves. 

One way forward, at least in part, is to bolster our centuries-old conflict resolution strategy. Countering those who say retribution is the right path, others contend that real healing needs more reflection, understanding and empathy. Right relationship trumps righteous punishment. Everyone: the victim, the offender, their families and friends, even the community at large, has a stake in the process of resolving conflict and restoring trust.  

Mark Umbreit and Marshall Rosenberg spent their careers in the muck and mire of conflict. As pioneers in their respective fields - victim/offender reconciliation and Nonviolent Communication - each has an impressive record of inviting combatants into the arena of peaceful rapprochement.

The first time the men met was at Willamette University, in 2004. After each addressed basic principles of their work, they joined a small panel of other guests including a rape victim from Portland and a reformed rapist from Seattle. She worked for a women's abuse shelter and, after his release from a lengthy prison sentence, he worked for a nonprofit offering transition education for others coming out of prison. 

Perhaps the panelists had done their "inner work" and brought with them a tolerance for unease and a practice of emotional vulnerability. Perhaps Umbreit's and Rosenberg's professional aura of confidence allowed trust to establish quickly. Both the victim and former offender were invited to speak the truth of their experience - at the time of the crime and the ways in which they have grown since.

At the end of the forum, though, what happened was both unexpected and unscripted. The victim and the offender stood up from opposite ends of the table, met midway, and embraced. The awe-struck audience became part of the magic of forgiveness and restored faith in humanity.

The book: SO, The New Scarlet Letters, is a testament to what kind of treatment is possible for a victim to find relief and for a sex offender to find behavioral transformation. Clients of co-author Marilyn Callahan - both male and female sex offenders – talk about the long process of recognizing, and then mending, their destructive ways.

So, if it's possible for a victim to heal, and for an offender to reform, it's also possible for a rape victim and her abuser to restore trust with each other. Knowing that, it suggests that society can also move towards restoration. The MeToo accusers can find support and relief. The accused can walk the long path of self discovery and atonement. The community can learn how to hold people accountable, while also offering support for eventual reintegration with society. And the backwater of American morality can once again find vitality.



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