Restorative justice in sexual abuse cases: A lighting rod or an opportunity to rehabilitate?

By Kieran McCartan, PhD, David Prescott, LISCW, & Kasia Uzieblo, PhD

Earlier this week two of the authors, Kieran and Kasia, took part in a webinar for the European Forum on restorative Justice as part of Restorative justice week. The purpose of the talk was to discuss the new Council of Europe guidelines on the assessment, management, and integration of people accused or convicted of a sexual offence and its link to restorative justice. The recommendations were developed by a broad group of experts involving Kieran, Marianne Fuglestved, and Harvey Slade as well as members of the PC-CP and external organisations (including, ATSA, NOTA, NL-ATSA, IATSO AND Les Centres Ressources pour les Intervenants auprès des Auteurs de Violences Sexuelles (CRIAVS). The recommendations are based on the importance of delivering effective practices to people who are convicted, or accused, of a sexual offence. This involves the events and processes from arrest and conviction through to their integration back into the community. The recommendations focus on different parts of the process, including risk assessment tools and processes, the role of treatment in prison and probation (especially the importance of a trauma-informed, service user-engaged rehabilitative process), the role of supporting and working with those who have been victimized (especially in respect to restorative justice), engagement with the media when individuals are released and the need for effective, evidence-based staff training and development. The aim of this blog is not to talk through the full remit of the recommendations and their impact – we would suggest that the reader look at the recommendations (see: – but rather to look at one recommendation in particular, the recommendations linked to restorative justice.

The use of restorative justice in the field of sexual abuse, and in the processes of treatment and recovery for those who have been harmed as well as the person that has committed the sexually abusive behaviour has sometimes been controversial. In 2018, the Council of Europe published Recommendations concerning restorative justice in criminal matters and as such were committed to seeing restorative justice as part of the criminal justice process. When developing the recommendations relating to people arrested or convicted of a sexual offense, the PC-CP suggested incorporating rights for those victimized and examining restorative justice. The team went and talked with Dr. Ian Marder, who had played a role in the development of the restorative justice recommendations, and developed a recommendation linked to it. The recommendation was:

Rule 31: Where appropriate, prison services and probation agencies should liaise with other criminal justice agencies as well as with victim support services and other agencies as appropriate, to ensure that the needs of victims are met and in order to avoid continuing victimisation.

Commentary:. Probation, and related services, should work with victim services in an appropriate and professional way to safeguard and protect the rights of victims. This is particularly important in cases where the victim is part of a vulnerable or protected group, or where they have an ongoing relationship, direct or indirect, with the person accused or convicted of the sexual offence. As outlined in Rule 30, this rule aims to support victims’ journeys, rather than enabling victims to influence the sentencing or release of the person convicted of a sexual offence. In terms of restorative justice, the victim can ask for a restorative justice‑based intervention if it is part of the suite of outcomes available to them upon or after sentencing.

The rule, or recommendation, indicates that restorative justice should not be taken off the table in respect to services offered people who have committed sexual abuse and those who have been victimized; rather, it should be used, where appropriate, in a thoughtful manner that considers the needs of those harmed. Kieran, Kasia and Linda Millington (from Why me?) discussed in a recent webinar. The webinar focused on the need to discuss the reality of sexual abuse and what this means for those impacted by it (both those who abuse and those harmed) and that restoration was an important part of the rehabilitative process. The webinar emphasized that restorative justice is not always about forgiveness or confrontation, but rather about an opportunity for discussion and to be heard and acknowledged, which is a central aspect of the healing process. The take-home message was that the victim’s journey is a central part of the criminal justice process and that it can be, but dies not have to be, a central part of the people convicted or accused of a sexual offences journey but it can be if all parties are open to it and respectful of it.