*Disclaimer: To protect subject’s identity and right to confidentiality, subject’s name has been changed.
Sitting in a dimly lit room, Joe* unveiled to me his story of abuse and exploitation. Even in the absence of his victims, the pain and trauma that he had caused was tangible, as was his shame and remorse. I listened intently, not really sure what to feel or how best to respond.
This was the first time someone with a history of sexual offences had disclosed their crimes to me. As the newly appointed Calgary Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) Coordinator, it would hardly be the last.
Calgary CoSA is a restorative justice program of MCC Alberta. It aims to substantially reduce the risk of future sexual victimization of community members by assisting and supporting released individuals in integrating with the community and leading a responsible, productive, and accountable life. This is done through “circles”: groups of three to five trained volunteers, usually from the faith community, who commit to befriend and regularly meet with, support, and hold accountable a former offender.
I began my role after Moira Brownlee retired as Coordinator in early 2019, a role she had had since the program began in Calgary in 2002. Over her seventeen-year tenure, Moira and others helped over fifty individuals with sex offence histories in their process of healthy community reintegration. Their work in Calgary, as with other CoSA programs across Canada and throughout the world, has been successful in reducing re-offense, protecting communities, and transforming lives.
This artwork, called ‘St. Paul in Prison,’ was created and donated by one of the men associated with CoSA.
This effectiveness in public safety is one of the main reasons I was drawn to CoSA and the position of Coordinator. I saw in this program a vital contribution to the common good through an embodiment of the Christian life. Consider, for example, Paul’s words in Romans 12:17-21 (NRSV):
'Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'
Sex offenders, whether in the prisons or in the community, are some of the most hated and feared people. It is quite natural to despise those who hurt us and those we care about. Yet the call to followers of Jesus is not to seek retribution from those who have caused harm, but rather to seek peace with them and to care for them. We are not to treat them in kind, but in kindness.
...by meeting the needs of former offenders and dignifying them as people, not monsters, their brokenness and need for grace reveals the same brokenness and need for grace in us all.
The model of CoSA may seem counter-intuitive to many. But by meeting the needs of former offenders and dignifying them as people, not monsters, their brokenness and need for grace reveals the same brokenness and need for grace in us all. The desire for belonging is fundamental to being human, and by providing a circle, a safe place where this can be fostered, CoSA enables people with histories of sexual offending to create a victimless future that takes them beyond the “sex offender” label.
In my short stint as Coordinator, I have met many individuals who have made amazing changes in their lives through the support of CoSA. They still have their struggles, as do we all, but they have found hope, progress, and accountability through acceptance, love, and friendship. Their stories motivate my work as I strive to see and empower many more like them in the future. But it is not them alone who encourage me. It is also the stories of volunteers whose lives have been enriched by getting to know and walk alongside people with sex offence histories.
As I look to the past, I am so grateful for the good work that has been done through Calgary CoSA. As I look to the future, I am excited for the chance to continue this work and to develop it further.
2019 CoSA BBQ Fundraiser
CoSA is a program of MCC in Calgary under MCC Alberta, and in Kitchener, Toronto, and Hamilton under MCC Ontario. If you are interested in learning more about CoSA and ways that you can support and get involved in this program, please contact Daniel Christie (CoSA Coordinator, MCC Alberta) or Rod Friesen (Restorative Justice Director, MCC Ontario).