Catholic Charities aims to develop restorative justice ministries, foster healing

Angel Burch holds her 4-year-old daughter, Alexis.

By Celine Klosterman

In the past two years, Angel Burch said, her life has turned around 180 degrees.

Assigned to drug court in Dubuque for the first time in 2009, the 23-year-old said she’d known only unhealthy friendships. Defiant and skeptical of volunteers in the Archdiocese of Dubuque who offered help through restorative justice ministries, she violated rules of her drug court and briefly spent time in prison.

But after seeing other drug court participants benefit from mentors and group-based Circles of Support and Accountability, Burch realized she couldn’t succeed on her own.


So after entering drug court for the second time about a year ago, she accepted invitations to receive a mentor and join a Circle of Support and Accountability. The support those ministries offer is vital for recovering substance abusers, who often are mending relationships with family and have few role models to turn to, Burch said.

“I’m so relieved to know that for the rest of my life, I’ll have these healthy relationships.  I have people who I can call just to chat or go for a walk with; I’ve never had that before.” Thanks largely to those volunteers, she said, she recently graduated from drug court.

In hopes of helping people like Burch, Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Davenport  is working to emulate the archdiocese’s models for mentoring and Circles of Support and Accountability.  Two years ago, with guidance from archdiocesan staff, Deacon Bob McCoy of Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport began mentoring offenders released from Luster Heights Work Camp in northeast Iowa. Bob Glaser, a retired prosecuting attorney and member of Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington, is working to implement a mentoring program for offenders as­signed to drug court in Des Moines, Lee and Henry counties.

Kent Ferris, the Davenport Diocese’s director of social action and Catholic Charities, hopes those efforts will eventually help spread restorative justice ministries throughout the diocese. Restorative justice models “seek to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a violation of law,” the U.S. bishops wrote in their 2000 pastoral letter, “Respon­sibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Per­spective on Crime and Criminal Justice.”  Catholic tradition offers ways to “hold offenders accountable and challenge them to change their lives; reach out to victims and reject vengeance; restore a sense of community and resist the violence that has engulfed so much of our culture,” the bishops wrote.

The Dubuque Archdiocese responded by developing a mentoring ministry and Circles of Support and Accountability, said Deacon Bill Hickson, coordinator of jail and prison ministry with the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities. In the mentoring program, a trained volunteer works one-on-one with a nonviolent offender, often as the individual prepares for release from a halfway house. The mentor may help the client find a job and place to live, offer basic financial counseling, and occasionally provide transportation, Deacon Hickson said.

“We’re there primarily to support them so they don’t give up. They’re in a tough situation,” said Deacon McCoy, who has mentored several offenders who moved to the Quad Cities after leaving Luster Heights.

In a Circle of Support and Account-ability, several volunteers meet regularly with one client to offer guidance in housing, child care, mending relationships and other issues.

In the archdiocese, about 200 volunteers in roughly 70 mentoring relationships and 20 circles of support work in cooperation with parole officers, police, social services and other community members. The volunteers’ outreach efforts aim to foster healing and community reintegration and reduce recidivism.

Glaser, a deacon candidate in the Davenport Diocese, understands the practical advantage of restorative justice. “If you can keep a person as a functioning member of society, that person will offer help to society, as opposed to taking away from society,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re called to do as Christians.”

Newly released offenders often need mentoring to get to the point where they can hold a job and feel comfortable in their surroundings, he said. He offered the example of a 40-something inmate who “looked young for his age” when his exit photo was taken during Glaser’s time as assistant attorney general with the Iowa Department of Justice. When the offender was again sentenced to prison two years later, “he looked like he had aged 20 years. Life on the outside had not been good to him.”

Deacon Hickson advises starting small when undertaking mentoring and circle of support programs. “When we come to an area of the archdiocese where we have not served before, we ask the parole officers in that area to ‘Give us one person to work with, someone you think our help will make a difference to.’ We always try to start small and not over-promise.  Then, as time goes on, and our success is seen, more people begin to ask for our help, and more volunteers come forward.”

Ferris hopes that as mentors in the Davenport Diocese become familiar with their roles, they’ll be better able to recruit more mentors and eventually form Circles of Support and Accountability.

Burch said she hopes the ministries touch more people in her position. “My whole life, I felt like the criminal justice system just wanted to see people like us locked up. But some volunteers saw something in us. They gave us a chance.”

To volunteer, contact Ferris at (563) 888-4211 or

Ongoing prison ministry efforts

In addition to developing restorative justice ministries in the Davenport Diocese, Catholic Charities is working to support Catholics currently ministering to people in prison. In at least six locations in the 22-county diocese, regular Bible studies or Communion visits are available for inmates, Kent Ferris said. About a dozen people attended six meetings in the past year for Catholics involved in prison ministry, and Catholic Charities plans to offer quarterly meetings in the future, added Ferris, who leads the diocese’s Social Action Department and Catholic Charities.

Below, find a link to the story of one Ottumwa Sister’s longtime jail ministry.

Sister is ‘fixture’ at county jail

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on