Involving Victims

Three times already this year, I have spent time at conferences sponsored by the Correctional Service of Canada, designed to put together a policy that gives better treatment to the victims of crime, in the workings of the justice system.

The members of my homicide support group are likely to feel that it’s not a moment too soon.

The difficulty, though, is that our whole system of criminal justice is designed, not to accommodate victims, but to shut them completely out of the process. Under such a system, reconciliation between victim and offender is impossible.

In a recent series of talks on the CBC, the Dutch professor of criminology, Herman Bianchi, mentioned how, in the days of the Roman Empire, there were two levels of dealing with crime. Among citizens, criminal offences were dealt with by way of negotiation between offender and the victim, or the victim’s family, to be settled by payment of damages. Beating or imprisonment were out of the picture: execution (by beheading) was only for political crimes against the Emperor. Hence the frequent times in the Acts of the Apostles when Saint Paul claimed the privileges of Roman citizenship, and the authorities were forced to apologize to him when he had been beaten or imprisoned.

Slaves, however, were in a different position. They could be beaten, tortured, imprisoned, even crucified, at the command of their owner or the magistrates.

So whereas in Aboriginal societies, and in Saxon England before the Norman conquest, crimes were settled by a process of compensation between offender and victim, it was the process of punishment first adapted for slaves and introduced by the Norman conquest which is the basis of the criminal law and procedures we have in Canada today. Crime is treated as rebellion against the Crown. The feelings and fate of the victim of crime goes by the wayside.

We are really dealing with two views of society. In one, citizens sit at a ‘round table’, and work out problems together in a spirit of problem solving and equality. Slaves, though, are those at the bottom of a pyramid, and above them are taskmasters, nobles, and ultimately the Pharaoh, the Monarch, or the Emperor himself. So the criminal law system we enjoy in Canada is one of punishment, slavery and control, not citizenship and mutual respect.

Jesus never wanted his disciples to “lord it over” the members of his church—even though the church itself has frequently not reflected this attitude in its structure and actions. So here’s hoping that the current experiments in diversion, sentencing circles and the like in criminal law, particularly in the case of young offenders and the first nations, prove themselves of value in bringing us to a more humane society.

– Anglican Messenger, 2001*

Victim Impact Statements

A recent article in the Edmonton Journal claimed that Alberta Judges paid little attention to the impact statements prepared by victims of crime. This provoked a lively discussion at a recent meeting of our Victims of Homicide Support Group, where members began to talk about the experiences they had had in preparing and presenting such statements in Court proceedings following the murder of their loved one.

Those who had prepared impact statements made no bones about what a difficult task it was to put such a statement together—the piles of discarded drafts crumpled up and thrown on the floor, the tears shed, and the slow progress made in preparing what they wanted to say. Also, their feelings of success and completion when their statement was finished, and then either read, or handed in to the court for others to read.

Oddly enough, though, and no matter what the Journal said, in most cases what the Judge did with the statement did not seem to be of critical importance, The victim’s feeling of achievement and closure came from having put into words the events that had taken place, and experiencing once again the intense feelings these had caused to the writer. That whole process was therapeutic. What the judge did with such a statement was not the victim’s business.

Annette Stanwick, a nurse and administrator at the Gimbel Eye Centre in Calgary, had a brother, a long distance truck driver, whom she lost to a murder taking place in Richmond, Virginia, thousands of miles away from his home. He had been sleeping in his rig overnight when it was broken into and he was shot as part of a robbery attempt.

In her book Forgiveness she describes the turmoil of feelings that boiled up in her as a result of this crime, feelings primarily of numbness, anger and fear. She points out, however, that it is only when people squarely face what has happened and mourn their loss that they will be ready to move on with their lives, sadder but wiser. Those who fail to do this are condemned to an endless revolving of the hurt in their minds and bodies. Avoiding the full realization of the loss, no matter how painful that is, can result in serious and long lasting mental and physical problems.

Annette goes on to describe what can follow this acceptance and grief. Accepting what has happened will lead to an interest in the perpetrators, their background and the motivation that led them to this crime. It leads further to recognizing that we all have made mistakes. Offering forgiveness rather than seeking revenge is a sure path to healing for all concerned. As she puts it:

“Despite my fears, God’s healing mercy has moved me from a role of victim to a role of victor… My weakness, depression and grief were replaced with new strength, courage and energy. I began focusing on others instead of ‘poor me’. I went from weeping at the hideousness life had handed me to feeling a pure sense of joy at the vision God had created for my life.”

So her book ends with the moving impact statement she presented to the Court, describing in detail the mental suffering the crime had caused her, yet finally containing an offer of forgiveness to the two persons guilty of the murder. So what could so easily have become a festering sore has been transformed by her actions and by God’s grace into a source of reconciliation, fulfillment and peace. And her story of forgiveness has had its impact on many who have heard it. The hand of God has been at work!

After all, in Jesus’s teachings, “loving one’s enemies”, reconciliation and forgiveness are what it’s all about. It’s good to hear, though, from one who has ‘been there’, the important truth that there is a proper path to follow in coming to the stage where such behaviour is possible. Forgiveness can only be sincerely practiced after we have faced to the depths and have grieved the agony of our loss.

 – Anglican Messenger, March 2009

Rescuing the Victim

It happens so often—the triangle of Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer.

The police know it well. Boyfriend (Persecutor) beats up Girlfriend (Victim) who dials 911 for the Police (Rescuer). No sooner do the cops arrive, than the characters change. Policeman becomes Persecutor. Boyfriend becomes Victim. Girlfriend attacks the Policeman, in her new capacity of Rescuer. In which case the Girl friend becomes Persecutor, Policeman becomes Victim, Boyfriend (possibly) calls her off in his new capacity of Rescuer . . .

And so on, round and round—and round.

It strikes me that this scenario has some bearing on the debate now going on about euthanasia, mercy killing, or whatever you want to call it. Mr. Latimer has a disabled child (Victim), suffering from a crippling disease (Persecutor), and decides to act as her Rescuer. So he arranges to kill her (Persecutor), before Society drops in with a murder charge, so making him into the Victim.

In her very penetrating book (Talking To Yourself), Pamela Butler takes up a theme that first appears in the Transactional Analysis books of Eric Berne. ‘Rescuing’ other people seems such a valuable thing to do—whole professions, and the welfare state itself, depend on the concept. But the truth is, that ‘rescuing’ is in fact positively harmful. It is taking people who should be learning to deal with life’s problems and pains in an adult manner, and compelling them to be children. In doing so, under the pretence of assistance, it deprives the Victim of the power of choice.

‘Rescuing’ encourages toxic situations to continue. As soon as he promises (for the hundredth time) “never to do it again”, the battered woman who knows she can call the police then feels it safe to stay with her boyfriend, in spite of his abusive behaviour. Without that support, she might much sooner decide to get right out of the situation, which would certainly encourage boyfriend to clean up his act. Engraved on my mind is one horrendous situation I was involved in as a lawyer, where a woman’s apartment was invaded by her estranged boyfriend, who assaulted her and left her with a broken neck. After being given a Legal Aid certificate (more Rescuing!), I obtained a Restraining Order—only to find that within a couple of weeks, the pair of them were back living together again. Anyone familiar with the protection and cover-ups that even the worst alcoholics get from their nearest and dearest knows that in that kind of situation, the ‘rescuing’ process can become habitual—and the addict never ‘hits bottom’ enough to make his or her own mind up to deal with the problem.

Don’t confuse ‘Rescuing’, says Pamela, with what people really need in such a situation—Loyalty, Love and Support. ‘Support’ is not the same as ‘Rescue’. It leaves the Victim still in control, to work out his or her problems in the way that the Victim, and not the Rescuer, decides. It is the parent, seeing a child struggling with his homework, who sees that the child has the right tools, but doesn’t do the work for him. It is the person who lends an ear to another in trouble, without taking up the obligation to be a ‘fixer’.

And if he had been a ‘supporter’ rather than a ‘fixer’, perhaps Mr. Latimer would never have been sentenced to ten years in jail, and his daughter might well still be alive.

– Gemini, May 1995

Injury Insurance

“N stands for Ned, Maria’s younger brother,
Who going one way, chose to look another.
In Blandford Square, a crowded part of town,
Two people on a tandem knocked him down;
Whereat a motor car, with warning shout
Ran over him, and turned him inside out.
The damages that he obtained from these
Maintained him all his life in Cultured Ease.


The Law protects you. Go your gentle way.
The Other Man has always got to pay.”

So Hilaire Belloc, in his “Cautionary Alphabet”. But “‘twas not ever thus.” Sometime in the nineteenth century, a lawsuit was brought by a gentleman severely injured by a runaway horse. His case was dismissed, on the grounds that “people making use of the public highway must accept the risks of accident there, including that of injury from runaway horses.”

It was in 1932 that the seminal case of McAllister (Donaghue) v Stevenson) was decided. A lady alleged that she had been traumatized by finding a snail in a bottle of ginger beer. The principle was established that mere carelessness, where it was foreseeable that such carelessness could cause loss or damage to another, would lead to liability for the payment of damages. So the case has become the foundation of the whole modern law of negligence (even though when it came to trial, Plaintiff failed to prove that the snail actually was there).

From this seed has grown today’s enormous industry of insurers, adjusters, expert witnesses, courts, victims and highly advertised personal injury lawyers, as well as insurance premiums costing young people as much as the car they drive, cancellation of such things as school field trips where any sort of danger could be involved, companies bankrupted by product liability claims, and a general sense that, before long, no one in society who is not already a deadbeat will ever dare doing anything involving a risk that might affect other people, for fear of being sued.

Of course, it is realistic that those affected, say, by a motor vehicle accident, get compensation from somewhere. And when one adds up the cost of lost income and nursing care required through life by, for instance, someone paralyzed by a spinal cord injury, the cost is quite rightly assessed as coming into the millions. Compensation has to come from somewhere.

So what about going back to our Victorian judgment? If we go out on the highway, we accept that this cannot be done without risk. So abolish the right to sue for damages resulting from any type of accident there. If we want to be compensated for injuries that we suffer on the highway, we place insurance on ourselves and our property, in whatever amounts we think are sufficient to cover death, disability, or property destruction. Careless drivers will face demerit points and the other punishments of the criminal law, of course, but the only insurance they will have to obtain is what they need to cover themselves.

Under such an arrangement, the insurance industry would switch from protecting people against liability, to providing for their disability. The court system would miraculously become unclogged. Our telephone books and radio waves would not be burdened with the smiling faces and pleading advertisements of ambulance chasing lawyers. Victims would get to keep the compensation they deserve, and receive it a great deal more promptly than at present, and in full.

Victims also would not need to exaggerate or continually rehash their sufferings, but would have an incentive to undergo the sort of rehabilitation already now provided by the Workers Compensation Board, and recover in the shortest time possible.

So, if you think you’re so goddarn valuable, you would pay for your own insurance yourself!

It’s time for a change—why not this one?

– Gemini, July 2003