Good security is about respecting people's human dignity, says Bishop Gary Gordon.

Good security is about respecting people's human dignity, says Bishop Gary Gordon.

December 2, 2013

On any given day more than 160,000 Canadians over 18 are in jail, though only 38,000 of them have been convicted of a crime. Despite a decline in crime rates, the rate at which Canadians are jailed rose by five per cent between 2001 and 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

So who is taking care of these people? Where will they find healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and community?

Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon believes it's our responsibility as Catholics to extend communion beyond the safe borders of our churches and homes and into the lives of the addicted, the poor, the wounded and the incarcerated.

Gordon is Canada's bishop ponens for prison ministry. Along with a team of prison ministry veterans, he is creating Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice, a network of Catholic volunteers and professionals to work with convicts and ex-convicts.

With a new website ( and plans for a national conference in September 2014, Gordon wants to beef up Catholic presence both inside prisons and working with prisoners after release.

Though it's been in the planning stage for months, the network went public over the Nov. 23-24 weekend with announcements in parish bulletins. As Catholics sign up to join the new network, organizers will give volunteers a role in prison ministry that they can be comfortable with – from visiting prisoners to visiting families on the outside to working with victims.

By the time of the Sept. 19-21 conference in St. Anne, Que., a new wave of volunteers will be available to work with people in prisons.

"What we're trying to accomplish is to increase the footprint of the Catholic Church in this ministry – in prison ministry, in restorative justice ministry, in reintegration ministry, in all of that," Gordon told The Catholic Register.

Changes in the prison system and in how governments approach chaplaincy are driving the Catholic effort to involve parishes and volunteers more deeply and directly in prison ministry.

"Right now federal chaplaincy is a mess," said Gordon. "I can't say it's because we haven't been at the table, but our presence has been so minimal."

Last year Corrections Canada fired all of its 49 part-time chaplains. While the hardest hit were minority faiths – Buddhism, Hinduism, traditional native spirituality - the cutbacks also affected Catholic programming in some institutions. There are 74 full-time, professional chaplains in the federal system – two Muslims and the rest Christian.


Fundamentally the government has switched to a professional spiritual care model, like that used in the military, where the chaplain's own faith is not relevant to the spiritual care offered. Chaplains serve as brokers for specific religious services, ceremonies and rites.

Thus a Presbyterian chaplain may serve a Catholic inmate with counselling and general Christian guidance, but then bring in a priest for Baptisms, Mass, Anointing of the Sick and sacramental Confession.

The Catholic bishops have no problem with professional chaplaincy, which is also the model used in hospitals and other institutions. But in the jails it means most spiritual services are now being delivered without any formal communion with the bishops.

Gordon hopes to repair this critical break in communion using trained, dedicated volunteers. He also hopes to extend prison ministry beyond the jails.

"To really make change happen, you've got to involve more people," Gordon said. "When you involve more people, you're creating a larger network of people who understand the issues, who can do the political advocacy when the time comes."


At one time there was always a Catholic at the senior levels of the prison chaplaincy service of Corrections Canada. But the bishops increasingly find they can no longer get their issues on the agenda or influence policy from the inside, Gordon said.

Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice will give parish-based volunteers the means to contribute to rehabilitation, healing and restoration for criminals and victims, said Deacon Mike Walsh of the Friends of Dismas – an organization that works with ex-prisoners in Toronto.

"We're trying to create a community, a community of people who really feel called to go and work with those whose lives have been touched by crime," Walsh said.

That restorative justice approach is going to reveal to volunteers new depths to their faith in Jesus Christ, he said.

"To me, part of the new evangelization is giving people new ways to live their faith that they haven't thought about before."

Gordon doesn't want to pick any fights with the government, but he's not shy about voicing his disagreement with Ottawa's tough-on-crime agenda.

"For many years Canada was a real light in terms of doing some wonderful things in the area of restorative justice and alternative sentencing and trying to reduce the time people spent in jails and coming up with better solutions," he said.

Politicians have catered to fears that increase more with the age of voters than with any real rise in crime.


"What we're forgetting is that good security involves human interaction," Gordon said. "Good security means good intervention. Good security is about respecting people's human dignity.

"We've seen an erosion of that. I think the churches have a pretty strong voice from our Gospel about how to do this better."

While volunteers are great, even necessary, they're no magic bullet, said professional chaplain Lucinda Landau.

"Volunteers, if not properly supervised, can easily turn up with compassion fatigue and burnout," said Landau. "They're at risk and the clients they're seeing are also at risk."

The doctor of ministry candidate at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, published a paper in the summer issue of Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging on how to sustain and effectively use volunteers in institutional chaplaincy.

People should not confuse what a volunteer can do with the demands of professional chaplaincy, she said. The demands are particularly heavy in prisons.

"You have people who have experienced trauma - whether they've inflicted it or experienced it themselves, and usually it's tied up in a cycle," she said.

It's also a setting that calls for more than maintenance of people's existing faith and religious identity.

"People can come to faith, and it is important from that point of view for the faith communities to have designated leaders in there to receive those people coming to faith and finding out what their preference is and what their history is.

"So, if they have a Catholic history they should have the opportunity to return to their faith," she said.


The new Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice network won't ask volunteers to take on psycho-social roles as counsellors or therapists, said Walsh. It only wants to enable people with a desire to volunteer to do whatever they're comfortable doing.

"Not all of them feel comfortable for example going into a prison or having an ex-prisoner as a friend that you mentor, as we do in the Friends of Dismas. But they would feel quite comfortable including them in their prayers."

Some of the volunteers for the Friends of Dismas cook casseroles for the group's dinner meetings but never meet an ex-prisoner. Others have had careers in the criminal justice system and are somebody a former convict can call up when things get rough.

"The thing about the Catholic world is that if you can energize five per cent of the Catholics, that's a very sizable group of people," Walsh said.

The launch stage for the new network will culminate next Sept. 19 to 21 in St. Anne, Que., following the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual plenary meeting. Volunteers, bishops and chaplains will spend three days mapping out what Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice can and should do.

"We could really take a leadership role here, making restorative justice part of what it is we're all about," said Walsh.