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Can We Forgive Karla?
Karla Homolka's punishment will outlast all justice-system sentencing. But forgiveness is a gift to help both sides of a crime heal and cope.

To the Mahaffy and French families, to those who grieve personally because of evil incarnate in some of the most horrific sex crimes in Ontario's history, forgive me. I am about to use your pain for my gain. Another headline, another conversation allowing celebrity crime to prosper from the industry that ensures your trauma bond can never be severed.

Karla Homolka has the choice to one day enjoy divine forgiveness.

Just when you thought you were moving on, more attention to the comfort of your heinous victimizer emerges.

Forgiveness is now the question being raised about Karla Homolka; what about forgiveness and her ability to re-enter life?

Like goodness, which spreads and ripples out in all directions, breaking boundaries and going where it was never invited, so evil travels with its poison. Media have successfully made every person a neighbour, and through the power of story, millions feel involved with coming to terms over the fate of a former murderer, rapist, abductor, liar and manipulator as she is released from prison.

Wrestling at a societal level over this issue of forgiveness holds enormous danger; the debate could cheapen the concept itself, as well as place yet more pain on families already facing a life sentence of suffering. We can try to deal with confusion over the effects of evil hitting us at this new stage of the story, explore our need to fix the pain and lessen the crime. But forgiveness is not a job done for you by consensus.

That Canada's justice system did not execute Karla Homolka for her crimes is a moral act of forgiveness. As she walks away from prison, we continue to debate her sentence. Liberal Senator Michel Biron sat at her side as a Quebec judge imposed one year of minor restrictions on her freedoms (she's prohibited from associating with known criminals and working with children, ordered not to communicate with victims' families, and to tell authorities her whereabouts). When the Senator called those limits "unjustified" and compared them to something in a dictatorship, the media and the public responded with outrage.

Their response was more typical of Canadians; three out of four of us have told pollsters we believe Karla continues to pose a threat to the general public. (The Senator later said he had been misinformed and was not lending "credence or support to Ms. Homolka.")

Here's a reality check for all of us: Karla Homolka's punishment will never end in her lifetime. Perhaps she's no longer an evil person; even so, her punishment outside of prison will be the new reality she'll have to live with. Look no further than her own family's continuing pain for the sex crime she engineered that killed her younger sister. The punishment for murder outlasts all justice-system sentencing.

But forgiveness is a gift to help healing and coping for both sides of a crime. "It is like a cane with two hooks on it, one around your neck, one around theirs. We're connected," explains grief counsellor Ros Crichton, founder of The Coping Center in Guelph, Ontario. "Forgiveness is the choice to unhook that cane: I am releasing you, I am no longer seeking vengeance against you."

Wilma Derksen, a friend whose 13-year-old daughter Candace was abducted and murdered, has written three books, the latest being Unsettled Weather: How Do I Forgive? Working with Mennonite Central Committee, she has pioneered a program called Safe Justice Encounters, which helps victims approach their offenders. This mysterious "f" word crosses all faiths and boundaries, says Mrs. Derksen: "You don't have to be religious to do it. It's like love—broad and created in the human psyche by God. It won't go away. And the longing for it is universal."

In Mrs. Derksen's assessment, media have continued the violence suffered by the Homolka victims. "The barrage of stories that feel like Karla is winning perpetrates the sexual abuse. After the child has died, mothering doesn't stop. And now, as mothers, they are powerless to stop the stories coming up in the press, and it has become a national story of how we value our children."

Have media played into a psychopath's hunger for attention? Do such stories hinder the ability of victims to heal?

In some cases involving TV reruns, feature articles of the criminal deeds and killers' profiles, the answer is yes, absolutely. Crime-story exploitation made gradual reintegration through something like a half-way house impossible, thereby adding to the social risk. We have a moral obligation to extend the possibility of rehabilitation to Karla Homolka; it's part of the nature of forgiveness that extends good rather than harm.

As much as I believe punishment on Earth for her crimes will never end, I also believe Karla Homolka has the choice to one day enjoy divine forgiveness. It was Jesus who, while being murdered on a cross, heard a cry of repentance from a criminal beside Him and said, "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise"—a statement that sums up the core of the Christian message that there is a way back to God, here on Earth, and in eternity.

Rev. Eleanor Clitheroe is a newly ordained Anglican cleric. After being fired as CEO of Ontario's Hydro One, she studied the work of the soul and is now director of Prison Fellowship in Canada. About 1,500 volunteers, both Catholic and Protestant, work through this chaplaincy program in our prisons, sending prisoners' kids to summer camp, giving prison families Christmas gifts, and bringing the Bible into prison life and restorative justice healing. In her first days on the job, she's processing the most extreme crime cases on which to apply Christian forgiveness.

"Yes, I do think Karla could be in heaven beside us," says Rev. Clitheroe. "Bottom line, God's redemption is for everyone. But you need to co-operate with God's grace; some people, unfortunately, co-operate with evil. It's a question of responsiveness to God's touch."

Lorna Dueck is the executive producer of Listen Up TV, a spiritual perspective on Canadian news seen Sunday mornings on Global TV, and weekends on CTS, NOW, and Salt and Light TV

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, July 4, 2005.




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