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Catholic Vancouver April 8, 2019

What if you were known for the worst thing you ever did?

By Agnieszka Ruck

Claudia Gruppioni (right) with prison ministry volunteers at a fundraising event March 13. Gruppioni’s faith and passion for justice led her to volunteer in a program that reaches out to released sex offenders. (Agnieszka Ruck photos)

Dealing with criminal offenders, especially those who have committed sex crimes, is so challenging you can’t pay most people to do it.

Fortunately some people are volunteering to do it for free.

“Work with sex offenders is work that the vast majority of members of our communities and our society would not sign up to do, and that’s with pay,” says Correctional Service of Canada parole officer Justin Chow.

“It requires patience, determination, persistence, empathy, assertiveness, teamwork, collaboration, understanding, but above all, it requires hope and compassion.”

That is why Chow is grateful to the more than 70 volunteers in a prison ministry program who regularly meet with sex offenders after they’ve served their sentences and have been released into the community. Called Circles of Support and Accountability, the program exclusively serves men and women who have committed sexual offences and show a commitment to turning their lives around.

These individuals “are ignored or, even worse, ostracized, excluded, or despised when they begin their journey back into the community,” making it hard to find jobs and housing, make friends, and otherwise make good life choices, said Chow.

Rita* knows this firsthand. The B.C. woman lost all ties with family and friends after she was convicted of a sexual offence and was incarcerated for five years in a U.S. jail.

“I felt very disconnected. I felt very alone. All I wanted was to come back home, but that was very fearful as well because I really didn’t know what to expect,” she told 106 volunteers, released offenders, and supporters during a COSA fundraising event in Surrey on March 13.

She was moved to a local prison for about five months before being released on parole. In that short time, “I didn’t get the chance to build any community supports before getting out. I was very worried about what was going to happen to me.”

She didn’t manage to connect with many family members either, and former friends wanted nothing to do with her. So, when she learned there was a program specifically created for released sex offenders, she became hopeful and contacted program head Maureen Donegan. “I told her I just really needed some community connections. I didn’t want to be going out there alone. I was really scared. Fear of the unknown is a really big thing.”

Donegan put together a “circle” – a group of three to five trained volunteers and one released offender – who are committed to meeting regularly for at least one year and to listening to Rita’s fears, providing encouragement and friendship, and keeping her accountable. COSA currently runs 25 such circles.

“I was able to get that community closeness that I was really needing and looking for. I look forward to my meetings every week and working on myself. It’s not always easy, but I feel myself making personal gains. I’m becoming a better version of myself than I used to be,” said Rita.

Justin Chow of Correctional Services of Canada said isolation can contribute to a re-offense.

She also took a risk and told the team about family members she hadn’t yet reached out to and was anxious about reconnecting with. Donegan helped make the call.

“It went better than I ever would have hoped for, which was huge. I was never very close to family most of my life. I’m closer to family now than I ever have been before,” said Rita.

“I feel wanted. I feel loved. I feel like I’m starting my life over with the supports and encouragement that everyone deserves. I am very grateful and very blessed. I don’t want to even imagine what my life would be like if this organization didn’t exist.”

COSA helps prevent recidivism since a lack of connection and community support can contribute to a repeat offence, agreed Chow. A 2009 study found that released sex offenders who participated in the program were 83 per cent less likely to commit a future sex crime and 70 per cent less likely to commit a crime in general.

“The values of COSA are founded in the teaching of Jesus Christ,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, a longtime supporter of the program, speaking at the event.

“We have an obligation to work towards the reintegration of those who have offended, not to pretend that the offence wasn’t there, but to have the strong hope in the redemption of individuals.”

Walter Dona said that’s what led him to become a longtime volunteer. “I want to make people accountable and keep the community safe.”

Dona has participated in three circles with three different released offenders. “The biggest thing I realized is they are not disposable. They are valued.”

Volunteer Claudia Gruppioni said she’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity since moving to Canada three years ago. Within 10 minutes of hearing about COSA, the Guardian Angels parishioner realized that was where she wanted to serve.

“I started thinking: what if every time I’m introduced to somebody new, they were to introduce me as the worst thing I’ve done in my life?”

“Human beings make mistakes and we all sin, but the thing with people in jail is that they crossed the line.”

Volunteer Claudia Gruppioni said although everyone sins, “the thing with people in jail is that they crossed the line.”

COSA, first launched in Ontario 25 years ago, spread to the Fraser Valley in 2004 and to Vancouver in 2010. It is locally run by the Catholic Justice Services Society and financially supported by the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Public Safety Canada, and private donors.

“Mother Teresa once said that loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty,” said Chow.

“The ability to hold offenders accountable for their behaviour, while also providing them with support and encouragement, assists them to adjust to their lives in the community. This makes a significant difference between an individual feeling like they belong and are accepted in the community, versus an individual who feels lonely and unwanted, and as Mother Teresa would say, in terrible poverty.”

An estimated 180 released sex offenders have participated in COSA from Vancouver to Hope since 2004.

*Name changed for privacy reasons.