From Skeptical Judge to Peace Circles

Janine Geske / Photo courtesy of icle.orgBy Dianne Frazee-Walker

While attending a restorative justice conference in 2006, they sat down to eat lunch in the cafeteria at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas. A friendly blond woman sat next to them with her tray. She introduced herself as Janine. The group carried on a conversation about restorative justice, which is a principle used most commonly within the justice system that brings victims and offenders together in a circle with a facilitator and other affected members of the community. The main objective of restorative justice is for the offender to be accountable for the harm caused by his/her actions, the victim to express the impact the crime had on them, and to have a voice as to how the harm should be repaired.

Later that day, they attended a presentation within the conference about a unique peace circle that takes place at maximum security prisons. The program brings convicted murderers and family members of murder victims together in a three day process that transforms not only the offenders, but reconciles the pain for the diseased victim’s family members as well.   

They were surprised to see the woman they met at lunch earlier facilitating the lecture. Janine Geske, former justice and judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and professor at Marquette University Law School was speaking about her experience facilitating peace circles with convicted killers and family members of murdered victims inside prison walls.

Geske spoke about how she responded when she was first approached about implementing restorative justice (RJ) into her sentencing process. She was skeptical to say the least. Geske quickly ruled out the RJ process because it just seemed “too touchy feely” for the distinguished judge.  But, after witnessing an RJ circle she was so inspired by the idea that it wasn’t long before she founded Peace Circles. Today she is the Director of Marquette University Law School Restorative Justice Initiative.

Geske left such an impression that they decided to inquire into what she is up to lately.

Just as predicted, Geske is continuing to cause a ripple effect within the world of restorative justice.  

Not only does Geske train community members to work with survivors of serious crimes using the RJ method, but is teaching students to educate social workers, inner city teachers and students to approach issues such as bullying and other damaging activities to facilitate peace circles.

Geske uses a talking “piece” as a tool for her peace circles to keep everyone on track and insure all members of the circle have a chance to speak. The talking “piece” can be anything from a crystal ball, which Geske used for her circles inside the prison to a stick decorated with Native American feathers and other artifacts. The person holding the talking “piece” has the floor until it is handed to the next speaker.   

When they first crossed paths with Geske in 2006, she was beginning her journey into the devastating effects clergy sexual abuse has on victims and the Catholic Church. The developing global scandal involving the Catholic Church and clergy sexual abuse inspired Geske to surge forward with her observation. Geske doesn’t let any grass grow under her feet, so the RJI, with the assistance of Amy Peterson, Victim Assistance Coordinator of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, began the project of gathering people for a circle.

Participants of the circle consisted of many walks of life affiliated with the Catholic Church, including clergy abuse victims, offending priests, and individuals who felt betrayed by the church.

Aside from addressing the deep seated harmful impact of clergy sexual abuse, the other main objective of the newly formed circle was to produce The Healing Circle (http://www.healingcirclegroup.com ), available on DVD. 

The purpose of the DVD is to enlighten the public about the severity of harm caused by clergy sexual abuse and the intense feelings of mistrust experienced by survivors and followers of the Catholic Faith.  

The production provides awareness of effective dialog that can be applied to conflicts of this degree. Using a restorative justice approach can offer healing to those impacted by the crime. The DVD also supplies the viewer with a perspective of why it is difficult for survivors of clergy sexual abuse to never truly “get over it.”

The wish from all involved in initiating The Healing Circle Project is that everyone can learn from listening to authentic healing circles about the rippling effect of clergy sexual abuse and use the information to prevent this type of criminal act from continuing into the future.