On this page you will find testimonies of people who are involved in COSA. New testimonies will be added regularly. The first one is from Harry Nigh, from Canada, one of the Founding Fathers of COSA.
It was June, 1994 and Dr. Bill Palmer, a psychologist at one of our federal penitentiaries was driving Charlie back to the community after he had served every day of his 7 year sentence for a sexual offense against a young boy.
I had known Charlie for 15 years through my previous work with a ministry of friendship that linked prisoners with Christian sponsors. Now I was serving as a pastor in a small Mennonite congregation in Hamilton, a steel-producing town with a population of less than 500,000 people.
Bill had called me a few months before wondering if we could put Charlie on a Mennonite farm upon release, in a caring and structured home without children. He was 41 years old but he had been raised in foster homes and large institutions where he himself had been sexually abused as a child.
Trying to place Charlie on a farm proved futile, but I told Bill that maybe we could create a ‘circle of support’ for Charlie in Hamilton. I recruited members from my congregation and community to be part of a small circle so that Charlie would have somebody in the community when he landed, like a surrogate family. We informally called our group ‘Charlie’s Angels’.
We had no idea what we were getting in for!
At the beginning, when this all started, we never conceived of this as a program. We just wanted to do something to help one guy, Charlie. I also knew that if nothing was done there would be another victim.
Within two days of his release the police made his picture available to the media and warned the community of his presence among us. He was front page news. One headline read, ‘Streets of Fear’. The school boards photocopied the press release and gave it to the primary schools in our region. When the flyer landed on the desk of my 8 year old son, he picked it up and announced. “I know him! He was at our place for supper last night.”
The police mounted 24 hour surveillance on Charlie because they felt sure he would re-offend within a short period. We heard later that the cost of the 6 week surveillance amounted to more than $ 350,000 in 1994 dollars.
All of this community uproar was unnerving for our little community. We had two congregational meetings at which everyone was invited to speak. Fears for our kids were expressed. What resources did we have as a little group to cope with this complex, polarizing issue?
In the midst of the discussion, dear Eleanor, one of the most vulnerable of our community, spoke up, “If Jesus hadn’t welcomed me, where would I be today?” The group decided unanimously to welcome Charlie, recognizing that we would all need to work together to help him avoid problem situations.
Charlie’s circle met with him regularly. Individually we contacted him every day, taking him to do laundry, to shop for groceries and to find furniture for his apartment. And we would listen, listen, listen.
For the first 6 weeks every time we took Charlie out of his apartment major crime detectives in two unmarked cars followed us everywhere. The principal detective actually attended some of our circle meetings and gradually the police became supportive of what we were trying to do.
Charlie’s circle of support filled a number of roles: advocating with the system to secure the benefits that were rightfully his; confronting Charlie about his attitudes and behaviour; walking with him through emergencies; providing financial backing when his kitten needed emergency surgery; mediating landlord-tenant conflicts; and celebrating anniversaries, milestones and all the small advances in Charlie’s journey of reintegration.
The circle felt keenly a dual responsibility: to be a caring community for Charlie in the midst of the hostility of the larger community, but also to a responsible community, concerned that there be no more victims. We always hoped that our presence might avert a situation in which another child would be hurt.
Three months after Charlie’s release to Hamilton, another high profile offender named Wray returned to the City of Toronto and colleagues who had been observing and supporting our efforts in Hamilton created the second Circle of Support and Accountability. Before we knew it, a movement had begun – a community-based response that allowed ordinary citizens to move from fearful rejection to active, compassionate involvement, supported by experienced professionals in creating sanctuaries where despised offenders could be treated with respect but also with accountability.
Both Charlie and Wray lived with chronic medical conditions. Charlie lived on his own in Hamilton for 12 years before he died of a heart attack. Wray lived 14 years in Toronto before succumbing to cancer. Neither man ever committed another sexual offense. For both men their community of support remained steadfast and a profound, mutual caring emerged that transformed us all.
In ‘Tattoos on the Heart’, Fr. Gregory Boyle writes about a lifetime of ministry with gang members in Los Angeles. “What is the delivery system for resilience”, he asks? “In part, it’s the loving caring adult who pays attention. It’s the community of unconditional love, representing the very ‘no matter whatness’ of God.”
Circles of Support and Accountability are just that – ‘deliveries systems of resilience’ for offenders and communities who are both trying to put the pieces together again. Often the natural, visceral response in our communities is to clamour for exclusion when an offender returns from prison. As circles of unconditional, tough love we can make an incredible impact in restoring wholeness right where we live.
Harry Nigh, Toronto
Chaplain at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada