A Time to Forgive
October 21, 2011
Janet Connors worked for years in violence prevention programs in Dorchester.
She had seen many teens pass through various programs. She had also seen kids deemed as "violent" or just "bad kids" expelled from school, sent to prison time and time again. In the 1970s, she worked for the Families & Friends of Prisoners program.
Working with prisoners and violent young people was Connors' life work and passion.
And then, on Jan. 31, 2001, her son Joel "Joe Joe" Connors was stabbed in the heart with a knife resembling a sword. He died instantly.
"When the streets began to talk, the names thrown around were names I recognized; young men I knew from my work. Not only had I lost a son, but I began to question my life's work," Connors told a crowd of some 160 Stonehill students, faculty, staff and members of the community Wednesday night.
Connors was among a panel of speakers at the Martin Institute who recently spoke of their difficult journeys as victims or as offenders and how forgiveness has affected their lives. The talk was called "The Power of Forgiveness." A moderated group discussion followed the speakers.
Connors spoke about forgiving the murderers of her son, Joel. Her personal journey brought about a change in Massachusetts penal policy, which now offers victims the option of participating in Victim-Offender Dialogue. Connors has met with two of the young men who killed her son Joel as well as with their mothers.
"I knew about prisoner maltreatment. I saw a lot of little ones grow up... to get into trouble... get caught up in stuff," said Connors, followed by a pregnant pause.
Connors also warmed against dismissing offenders as "monsters." To do so, she argued, allows them to avoid their humanity and the path to accountability.
"But I believe it's the collective responsibility of our community to embrace these kids and say, ‘What is going on with you?'" said Connors, her voice trembling.
She recalled going to visit one of the men convicted for involvement in her son's death in prison.
"I told him my daughter told me not to throw my pearls in with the mud. He told me, ‘Tell your daughter you didn't throw your pearls in the mud. I wear them around my neck and finger them every day to remind me of your forgiveness."
Besides Connors, the discussion involved three guest speakers: Former Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Correction Kathleen Dennehy; ex-convict Katherine Power, and ex-convict Nghia Vy.
Power, who in 1970 became involved with the National Student Strike Force while attending Brandeis University, took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the killing of Boston Police Officer Walter Schroeder.
For 23 years, Power eluded the FBI and settled into an ordinary life. Then in 1993, she surrendered to authorities, pled guilty and spent the next six years in prison. Power's journey took her from defiance to denial to layers of surrender.
In her remarks, Power explained how she went from defiance to denial to surrender and to acceptance of responsibility for her actions. She noted that apologies are inevitably too little, too late but that they are integral to the process and that both repentance and forgiveness travel together.
Power stressed that "no person can be thrown away" and for the process of forgiveness to work, those who have transgressed must, in addition to accepting responsibility, be "invited back to their humanity." She also shared how the power of unconditional love gave her strength to transform herself.
Born in Vietnam, Vy had a difficult childhood which transitioned into anger when he became an adult living in America. In an alcohol-induced rage, Vy stabbed his sister-in-law while fighting with his wife.
Realizing what he had done, he proceeded to take his sister-in-law and the rest of his family to the hospital. Driving under the influence, an accident occurred and his sister-in-law was killed. After pleading guilty to second degree murder, he spent 15 years in prison.
Over time, as he underwent a profound psychological and spiritual transformation, his family went through their own process of forgiveness.
"The biggest challenge I have is people are afraid of me when they find out about my past," said Vy, who is currently in dog-grooming school.
But former Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Correction Kathleen Dennehy said despite the fact that Vy served a life sentence for second-degree murder, "I trust my life in Nghia's hands."
Dennehy worked with Connors in the formation of the Victim-Offender Dialogue Program. Dennehy is also the former Superintendent of the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Framingham.
"Believe me, I didn't grow up playing disciplinary board with my Barbie dolls," she told the crowd. "But I believe people can change; I believe in remorse; I believe in atonement; I believe in second chances."
"When I look out at those of you sitting here, I see the next generation, and I know we have a hope for forgiveness," said Dennehy, who explained how her Catholic faith has infused her approach to understanding and supporting the process of rehabilitation.
The panel was moderated by Ruth Henderson, who has researched the idea of forgiveness in South Africa and Germany, as well as at local institutions, such as the Center for the Sexually Dangerous.
Henderson is a fellow in the Martin Institute's new Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Established this semester, the Center provides an important focal point for Stonehill students interested in self-created majors and minors, existing interdisciplinary programs, and events and initiatives of the Martin Institute.
Before the members of the panel spoke, Henderson, who stressed the importance of respect and deep listenting, asked the audience:
"What does grace mean to you? How do you feel about mercy? Compassion? Forgiveness?
"Forgiveness after murder. After a burtal crime. Devestating. It has left a person dead. An empty place at the table every holiday," she said. "The question is: where do you go from there? What are the limitations if we stay focused on death?"
She asked the audience to look beyond the media's "hollow sound bites and shocking headlines." Instead, she encouraged the audience to think beyond immediate reactions because regret often takes time to develop, something that gets lost in the media's love of the sensational.
"We have to remember that people who committed violent crimes are capable of undergoing transformation," Henderson said. "Remorse gets deepened over time."
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.