About Cookies on this site

To give you the best possible experience, this site uses cookies. We have published a cookies policy, which you should read to find out more about how we use cookies. By clicking 'Continue' you agree to allow us to collect information through cookies.

Passionists UK Hidden in the criminal justice system is the uncomfortable truth that no-one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Hidden in the criminal justice system is the uncomfortable truth that no-one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Passionists UK Hidden in the criminal justice system is the uncomfortable truth that no-one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Mar 23 2021, 11:17 AM

Life as a Passionist so often demands that we think outside of our comfort zones: to consider new perspectives and apparent paradoxes. For more than three decades now, my daily work has provided me with this challenge. I work as a forensic psychotherapist within the criminal justice system across the London prisons and probation service. At the heart of forensic psychotherapy is the belief that all offences are a symbolic communication of something that cannot be said and that no one is defined by their offence alone. It is these tenets that I embrace when advising courts, parole boards and police investigations on risk, dangerousness and suitability for treatment.

In the context of my work, I have met many hundreds of men and women each presenting me with their own unique version of the paradox of the human condition. I am forever grateful to these men and women who consume my daily thinking, and constantly challenge me to go beyond myself. In the face of the things we consider ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’ or ‘mad’, the only certainty I come away with is that is is never clear cut; it is always paradox. This, to my mind, is the heart of the experience of the Passion.

The reality that makes us uncomfortable

Paradox in the criminal justice setting is always hidden from public view. My work takes place in a separated, secret world. That fact alone acts as a constant reminder that I am connected to much that many do not want to think about. It is considered only on partial terms by a polarised media, or distorted beyond recognition by the latest Netflix crime drama.

However, in the winter of 2019, a major incident on London Bridge propelled the paradoxes of criminal justice into the wider public’s thinking. And although there was little recognition of it, the very Passionist themes of forgiveness, wholeness and redemption featured strongly.

Police responding to the London Bridge incident in 2019

The incident I refer to unfolded at a conference on rehabilitation. A radicalised young man launched a knife attack on two of those attending and killed them. As the violence continued, it spilled out onto the bridge and others from the conference became involved. 

In the media coverage that followed, two men were brought to our attention – and both are deserving of our continued reflection. The first is a man previously convicted of murder who, caught up in a new drama, acts to save and preserve life. The second, a man who has committed his young life to helping change and to rehabilitate similar offenders, loses his life at the hands of one he may well have sought to serve. In the days that followed, the media found many words to express a response in relation to the second. But there was a clear struggle to find the language to comprehend that someone serving a life sentence for murder could also be equally involved in the preservation and saving of lives.

We are forever a sacred mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’

In this example, it seems that extreme events are never really as extreme as we need them to be. We prefer ‘extreme’ to mystery. We know what to do with ‘extreme’. We make it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ so our small, limited mind can cope. What our thinking struggles most with is the reality and fact of wholeness. The fact that someone – ourselves included – are forever a sacred mix of all that we easily label ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that the resultant manifest wholeness is, for the most part, not extreme at all. My understanding as a clinician of faith tells me that wholeness is not one or the other: it is always both. It is always a paradox. 

The events on London Bridge made public the reality of the paradox within the human condition. For once, the very private world that I inhabit was revealed. Something more occurred; something more got played out for all to see, and that something demands more than our conditioned view of our world and each other. It demands we think beyond the initial superficial reaction, to be unafraid of ourselves and the mystery of what wholeness really looks like. Because wholeness is much more than we care to think about. 

We prefer ‘extreme’ to mystery. We know what to do with ‘extreme’. We make it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and our small, limited mind can then cope. What our thinking struggles most with is the reality and fact of wholeness.

Wholeness also requires us to think about the third man who featured on the bridge that day. For he brings into sharp focus the reality that none of us are ever one-dimensional. We are all that incredible mystery of immense light, immense dark and many dimensions.

At that moment in time, it is the third man who manifests the part of him capable of ultimate destructive behaviour. But, like it or not, that destructive moment is exactly that: a moment. It is not the full picture, and is certainly not the full reality or extent of who he is. The third man was once a babe in arms, just the same as the other two men. He will have also travelled through life being attached to, and loved by, others; being seen and known for many things worthy of praise and respect – nothing like the part of him now witnessed by the world. He too, just like the rest of us, was a manifest paradox in much need of a manifest passion.

Related Stories

Passionists UK How I founded the first daily online Catholic news service in the UK

How I founded the first daily online Catholic news service in the UK

Jo Siedlecka, from our Passionist partners Independent Catholic News, explains how the popular news site came to be, and where it could be going next.

May 26 2021

Passionists UK Will we give up our certainty and comfort to meet God among the suffering?

Will we give up our certainty and comfort to meet God among the suffering?

Humanity is waiting for those who will find their lives - and find God - by leaving institutions behind and joining the powerless.

Mar 12 2021

Passionists UK Calais refugee life is filled with the power of words

Calais refugee life is filled with the power of words

Alex Holmes, from our Partners at Catholic Worker Calais, shares snapshots of Calais refugee life.

Mar 02 2021