SURREY—When Leo* got out of prison in 2016, he signed up for a program aimed at helping former inmates build connections, find work, and stay out of trouble.
But when he went to his first Circles of Support and Accountability meeting last fall, Leo became afraid and quickly backed out.
“My first meeting with my circle included two ladies and one man. I right away felt uncomfortable talking about my crime in front of the ladies,” said Leo, who had been locked up for a sex offence. “I was very ashamed of myself and, of course, I felt guilt.”
Leo, who was on parole and living in a halfway house, then learned if he didn’t try COSA, he’d likely be sent back behind bars. It was the only reason he gave it a second try.
“Once you’re out of there, it’s not nice to go back,” Leo said. He went to another meeting, faced the volunteers, and got the courage to accept their help.
They assured me that they were not there to judge me, and their role was to offer support, accountability, and to help me deal with any issues I might have.
“They assured me that they were not there to judge me, and their role was to offer support, accountability, and to help me deal with any issues I might have,” he said.
Now, Leo considers them friends. “The positive words, warm hearts, and friendly nature have gone a long way to help me deal with my guilt and shame,” he said. “I still have guilt and shame, of course, but at least it’s not consuming me.”
Since 2004, COSA has helped 140 men like Leo re-integrate into the community. That’s a feat that Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, believes the team should be proud of.
“You all deserve not only my meagre thanks, but the profound appreciation of the whole archdiocese, which benefits from your witness,” he said during an annual Catholic Charities Justice Services volunteer development day Oct. 28.
“All of you are involved in a ministry steeped in mercy, because you bring the goodness and tenderness of God to those who commit or suffer from crime.”
Mark* moved into a halfway house after he got out of jail in December. Also a released sex offender, he said his COSA group helps him deal with his past and make goals for the future.
“I had a lot of ups and downs and went through a lot of emotions,” but volunteers encouraged him to make goals and work toward them. With their help, Mark got work as a landscaper in the Fraser Valley. He became a volunteer in a community garden and at a farm, where he delivers vegetables to soup kitchens and food banks.
“It gives me a feeling of wellness in helping others,” he said. The work also helped him reach his biggest goal yet: moving into a condo Nov. 1.
“Having the group of support that I have, I really enjoy it and look forward to making more goals happen.”
Linnea Groom said these works of mercy are possible because volunteers with COSA and Catholic Charities Justice Services believe anyone can change.
Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
“Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity,” she said during the day-long event, hosted at St. Andrew Kim Parish in Surrey.
When sex offenders are released into the community, Groom said isolation actually increases the chance they will reoffend.
“Without community, you have isolation.” Many sex offenders are ostracized by their family, friends, neighbours, and the media. “Social isolation is a common factor in sexual offences and secrecy is a hallmark of sexual offending.”
Prison ministry volunteers believe “no one is disposable,” said Groom.
CCJS also runs ministries to prisoners behind bars, victims, and victim families. About 150 staff, volunteers, and released offenders attended the annual development day, the largest turnout in recent memory.
*Names have been changed.