Priest learns about forgiveness during trip

Father Thomas Clark recently looked through notes he took at the International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Witnessing victims and perpetrators of genocide living together in peace in Rwanda has given Father Thomas Clark a new way of looking at what’s right and what’s wrong in the world, he said.

Father Clark, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, participated in the eighth annual International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform, which took place in Kigali, Rwanda, May 21-25. The conference was organized by the non-profit group Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) based in Washington, D.C., of which Father Clark is a member.

Rwanda was chosen as the host country because it’s one of the “prime examples in the world of restorative justice,” said Father Clark during an
interview June 21.

In April 1994 a complex combination of political unrest and long-standing rivalry between tribes set off a massacre that left close to a million people dead in Rwanda. Father Clark said he discovered on this trip that in the ensuing years, the Rwandan people have learned to forgive and make peace with that violent past.

A community court system known as “gacaca” was established in Rwanda to try hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects. The court gave the community a chance to face the accused.

Father Clark said the people he spoke with in Rwanda indicated that it was “lengthy and difficult, but that they are proud of the progress” their country has made.

Many of the accused have been restored to the community, said Father Clark.  Hundreds of victims and people accused of violence now live side by side in a Rwandan village known as the “Village of Reconciliation.” That village was the “highpoint” of his visit to the East African nation.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle. God has to be a part of that,” said Father Clark. “It was a moving experience.”

Though the memories of the genocide are seared in the country’s history, Father Clark noted that Rwandans are “friendly and proud. They’re united and want to take responsibility for what happened” in their country. Father Clark and other conference participants also visited a genocide memorial, where 250,000 victims were buried in mass graves, said Father Clark.

A Catholic church, where thousands were massacred, still stands as part of that memorial. The clothing and the bones of the dead were kept as relics, he said. Yet, “Rwanda has chosen this lengthy and remarkable process of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, not the path of long punishment and revenge.”

During the week-long conference, Father Clark and participants from more than a dozen nations around the world heard from speakers who work in the justice system and from individuals who’ve been incarcerated.

The speakers discussed the need to reform prison systems and move from a punitive to a more restorative approach to justice, said Father Clark.

What he learned, he said, is that “there can be another approach to justice.”

Father Clark said he ministered to incarcerated individuals for years and served as a chaplain to mentally ill individuals who’d committed crimes and were confined in Central State Hospital.

This ministry to the incarcerated led him to believe that, with the exception of a few, people who have committed crimes can be “restored,” he said. But justice systems are often too “focused on punishment and not restoration.”

“A person is created in God’s image. There’s always hope that person can be restored, at least in God’s eyes,” said Father Clark.

When a person who committed a crime has been restored, “they can come to an appreciation of who they are — children of God,” said Father Clark. They can resume their roles in their families and “be proud of who they are again. Generally, every person, if they’re treated with dignity, can be restored.”

Some of the speakers, including a woman who’d been incarcerated for 20 years, said they believe prison should be a last resort, said Father Clark.

American speakers noted that a large percentage of people in the United States are in prisons. The speakers also noted, he said, that the children of the imprisoned suffer the most and that many prisons in the U.S. are becoming a sort of “warehouse for the mentally ill.”

A representative from the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit group based in Montgomery, Ala., that provides legal representation to people who may not have received a fair trial also attended the conference. The group presented on the number of executions in that state and on the factors such as “wealth, politics and racial bias” that determines who is imprisoned, said Father Clark.

Father Clark said he believes the justice system in the U.S. can be changed to one that embraces the idea of restoring individuals instead of punishing them, but it will require the community working together.

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