I expected to hear angry words of retaliation and litigation but instead the father said simply that he had crossed the room, hugged the tormented doctor, and told him “I forgive you”. It was a particularly moving moment of television, not least because in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq this merciful and compassionate tone felt distinctly counter cultural. For many months the bellicose rhetoric of revenge and pay-back had been grabbing all the headlines.

An act of self-healing

As a freelance journalist it inspired me to do something different; and so began a year-long search for similar stories of forgiveness and reconciliation from around the world. The result – thanks to sponsorship from human rights campaigner Anita Roddick – was a mobile exhibition called The f Word: stories of forgiveness. I called it The f Word, because, through meeting both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence, I’d come to realise that forgiveness was not about excusing or cordoning, nor was it the privilege of some superior spiritual wisdom. It was not a one off event, or simply an act of individual kindness towards another human being. Rather it was a process, part of the continuum of human engagement and above all an act of self healing, a way of releasing a victim from the grip of the perpetrator, the memories of trauma. The stories showed that forgiveness was neither easy nor weak: it was difficult, costly, painful … but potentially transformative.

Inspiring people to lead a more positive future

The Forgiveness Project grew out of this exhibition which launched at the Oxo Gallery in 2004. It is a charitable organisation, which uses story-telling (that is the real experiences of both victims and perpetrators of crime and violence) to explore forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative justice. The broad aim is to inspire people to let go of past resentments and hatreds in order to lead a more positive and productive future. We provide workshops and materials for prisons and schools which move from exploring concepts of truth, justice, forgiveness and revenge, to personal responsibility at an individual and societal level. Importantly, with a word like forgiveness barnacled by aeons of piety and so often felt to belong solely to the domain of Christianity, The Forgiveness Project has neither religious nor political affiliations.

As an organisation we now have over a 100 stories from all round the world on the website. The website receives over 500 visitors a day. We have several editions of The f Word exhibition (redesigned and updated) for hire which, during the month of November 2010, was simultaneously seen in four different countries – including at the University of Toronto in Canada and at Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London.

Rehabilitation of offenders

Quite separate to the exhibition is our Restore programme for offenders, which in 2007 was commended by the Lord Longford Prize for its “remarkable work” in prisons. The programme works towards reducing the number of victims of crime through the rehabilitation of offenders, delivering a five-day programme intended to explore the nature of forgiveness and to enhance participants’ victim awareness by looking at the consequences of their actions on others and what might be done to repair the harm. This is done by using personal testimonies, life-maps, film and discussion in both large and small groups. The word “explore” is critical. We do not offer a 12 step programme, or indeed go in with any predetermined outcomes. And it is precisely in this lack of agenda, in this invitation to consider as opposed to teach, that the success of the programme lies. In prison offenders get told all the time what to do, are monitored and assessed, handed forms to fill in and boxes to tick. Our approach is refreshing in its openness.

Prisoners are also often an angry group of people – angry at society, angry at authority, angry at the people who have hurt them in their childhood, and angry at their victims who far too often they perceive as being to blame for getting them into jail in the first place. We work with that anger by first and foremost asking course participants to listen to the stories of victims of crime and violence. Crucially these are always “reconciling” stories – in other words stories where the speaker has reconciled with what has happened to them, though not always with the perpetrator. The use of victims’ stories provides the opportunity for prisoners to address the harm they have caused, as well as exploring the relationship between themselves as victims and the victims of their crimes.

For instance, Mary Foley has exchanged letters with the killer of her daughter who is serving a life sentence for murder. Richard McCann, whose mother was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, is no longer blighted by thoughts of revenge. And Peter Woolf, once a hardened career criminal and drug addict, has turned his life around following a Restorative Justice conference with two of his victims. 

A revolution in rehabilitation

The Restore intervention fits well within the Coalition Government’s emphasis on a “revolution in rehabilitation”. If empathy connects us as human beings, then these personal testimonies give insight and understanding into the lives of those who have been harmed as well as those who have harmed others. It has the ability to kick start participants into thinking differently about their lives and resolving to make a change. Motivation is vital if you are to engage prisoners in aspiring towards a future free from crime.  

I believe that one of the main reasons why re-offending rates don’t drop, and the nature of re-offending doesn’t change, is because often offenders don’t understand the effects of their actions on others. So what do you do about this? Getting angry and calling for longer sentences and more punishment may feed some people’s idea of justice, but it doesn’t actually change people – as Kenneth Clarke has repeatedly pointed out since being appointed Secretary of State for Justice. What changes people are interventions which on the one hand recognise that offenders have probably been victims too, but on the other hand puts the emphasis on developing empathy and fostering greater accountability. Once prisoners are able to understand the effects of their actions and the harm done, it becomes much more difficult to continue hurting others.

Making a big impact

The Forgiveness Project is a small organisation which makes a big impact. We are not in danger of losing our funding from the Government because we have never had any. To date the programme has been paid for by grants from charitable trusts and individual donors but in these financially bleak times funding is running out and we are now having to say to prisons that if you want our programme you must pay. Some scrape the money together, others cannot. Sadly this means that nowadays we turn down much more than we do. We are looking for legal partners – individuals or firms – who would like to support our work either by donating funds or in kind.

Peter Dawson, the governor of HMP High Down in Sutton, recently said this about The Forgiveness Project’s Restore programme: “There is something extraordinary about a course which sets out to ask prisoners to examine the most profound and difficult issues imaginable. In my view, The Forgiveness Project can start a process of personal reflection without which rehabilitation and restoration are impossible.” ?

Marina Cantacuzino is the Founder and Director of The Forgiveness Project. www.theforgivenessproject.com