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Expanded Questions – Ester Pascual: “When the victim sees that the person who hurt them is truly sorry and is suffering for it, they regain confidence in human beings”

[Transcript of interview]

-Welcome to Expanded Questions. Today we are going to talk about Expanded Reason in a specific case and in a specific degree, in Criminology. Throughout history there have been many attempts to bring victims and perpetrators together, and today we are going to talk about these meetings with the director of the Criminology Degree at the Francisco de Vitoria University, Ester Pascual, because she is one of the people who has tried and is carrying it out. Hello Ester, how are you, how are you?

Hello, good morning.

-Welcome, it’s a pleasure for us to have you here, in this space of Expanded Reason. Above all, what we wanted to look at is the subject of forgiveness with all the rawness it contains, but from a transversal perspective, because it covers different fields, it can be seen from the family to restore the relationship, from education, psychology, in law for restorative justice, in communication for how the struggle between evil and good is expressed, one can choose which choice to make… But how important is university study in the capacity to establish this forgiveness? How do you see the possibility of training in forgiveness applied to each science through this study?

Well, I think that in order to reach this training you first have to have an understanding of what generates crime, transferring it to the field of criminology. You have to understand what it means to be a victim of a crime, the needs of a victim, the first of which is the truth, the need to know what happened and why; a second step, on the part of the offender or the perpetrator, is the recognition of the damage, because it is very healing for the victim and makes the perpetrator see the impact it has on people, that is, how it changes their behaviour or their character, and if they become aware of the crime, forgiveness comes naturally. Whoever sees the damage they have caused and looks at it critically, the need to ask for forgiveness comes naturally. It is not a forgiveness to free oneself from guilt, but a forgiveness to get closer to the victim, to get back to the more human side of the victim, because when perpetrators who are truly repentant ask for forgiveness they do it to regain the dignity they once lost when they committed such atrocious crimes.

How is that taught? We teach students to look at crime from the point of view of the impact it generates, not only what it is called in the Penal Code or what punishment we give it, in other words, how it is going to be punished, but what generates the crime. Apart from that, a legally reprehensible conduct and a prison sentence or compensation, what else does it generate? You have to look at the perspective of the perpetrator and the victim, and from there, with time, you can see how forgiveness is very healing for all parties.

-In fact, it is one of the main ideas in Icíar Bollaín’s latest film, Maixabel, because of how you see that the perpetrator, the one who causes victims, through the encounters obtains a personal benefit of healing, as do the victims, as if it were a mutual aid, since their lives end up being linked… what is the anthropology that underlies both conditions?

The restorative encounters reflected in Icíar Bollaín’s film are based on a true story, it does not invent anything, it happened in reality. What is the idea of the person underlying it? To be able to participate in a restorative encounter experience, the victim has to be in a phase of de-victimisation.

In a victimisation process there is a first phase of criminal impact, of shock (“this is not happening to me”, “my husband has not been murdered”, “this is a dream”) and this phase can last for weeks or months, depending on how the event happened and how the person is receiving it, if he/she is medicated or not.

Then there is a phase of hatred and anger, it is healthy to also feel the anger of saying: “Why did this happen to me? Anger is natural emotionally, but you have to get out of that phase because hate, in the end, destroys you, and the victims tell it very well, all those who have participated in the meetings. The film only reflects two, but there have been 32. The truth is that many victims say that after many years of hating, they discover that it is the one who destroys the one who feels it. Hatred does not reach the perpetrator. The one who suffers the hate is the victim and it does not allow him to be happy with what he has left, his children, the rest of his family, his work… the hate eats him up. That is why many victims say: “He has already destroyed my husband, my son or my father, he cannot destroy my life and destroy what I am”. They describe a change of mentality: “I have to be reborn. How? By overcoming the event, by forgiving, and forgiving does not mean forgetting or justifying.

These meetings allow the victim to ask questions about the crime, which is very important, and to see the human side of the perpetrator. That is what gives a victim peace again. Many victims say that when they see that the person who harmed them is truly sorry and is suffering for it, they regain the trust in the human being they once lost. Such a traumatic event makes one suffer the loss of trust in the human being, but the fact that this human being is able to look them in the eye after a long time and show that they are indeed suffering for what they did and will not do it again restores their trust. That is on the part of the victim.

On the part of the perpetrator, a lot of time is required, it is clear that when a person commits a murder he does not regret it the next day, he needs a path, and a real capacity for self-criticism. What happens is that experience also shows that in people who commit a crime, deep down there is repentance, pain, discomfort because they are aware that they have destroyed a life, and that remains there. There are those who are able to verbalise it and there are those who continue to maintain that what they did was well done, but it is a protective layer because in the essence of human beings, when they do wrong, there is a hint of self-criticism or responsibility for the damage they have caused that ends up weighing heavily.

-And it is a way… because how do you reconcile forgiveness and justice? What is each term?

Well, in fact they are completely separate. The criminal process is there to establish a procedural truth that often does not coincide with the truth that the parties experienced, it is there to determine whether this person is the perpetrator or not and to impose this punishment, but a criminal process is not there to heal the moral wounds caused by the crime, that’s the way it is. Nor does it give the victim a space to express themselves, to ask questions. Justice remains there, but many victims, despite a trial or a conviction, do not feel that justice. For them, justice is not truth or reparation, it is something else.

-Also at the university we see that this path is a search for truth and normally we search for it with other people. You see in the film the value of community, but what does it mean that thanks to this community you can reach this path of healing? Is the group an essential factor?

I think so, there will always be pioneering people who dare to take the step, such as the victims who participated in these meetings and the perpetrators, and both sides have a lot of merit. The behaviour of both is very courageous. But then there has to be a community that supports you, that encourages you and supports you. That’s the oil stain in the ocean, they say: “It’s only 32 cases out of 900”. But that is permeating little by little, little by little, and what these victims did has been permeating part of society and their small communities, they have also been making it known, it seems positive and necessary to them, to others, and it is tremendous because there are already people who are asking for it: “I want to go through a restorative meeting because I need it”.

As I say, this is taking root in society, in small communities, in increasingly larger ones, and society has to understand that dialogue is something very necessary, that it brings us closer together much more than we think and has a brutal potential. Forgiveness, which is something we are afraid to talk about, also has a brutal potential, for victims and perpetrators.

-I don’t know if you know one of the papers in the Expanded Reason Awards, by Robert Enright, about forgiveness. He said an interesting idea, that this exercise of kindness has a point of rationality and is an act of will, almost heroic. Do we need to educate our personality in virtue or is it a question of heroism? What does it take to forgive?

It takes overcoming hatred. Some people are more innate, have a natural predisposition or find it less difficult. I ask myself, the people who participated in these meetings: What special people! They are no better or worse for taking part in this, all victims deserve respect, but it is true that they are people who believe in second chances, in reintegration, and who are not entrenched in hatred.

They are taught from an early age that dialogue is there, that human beings are capable of the worst, but also of the best. It is a virtue that can be cultivated by oneself, but it is also learned through the example of those we love the most, and society drinks from these examples. Some societies are more pacified than others because of an issue that is there from childhood; the Nordic countries are much more pacified because they have a system where values are lived from childhood onwards. I think it is important.

-Statistically, this author also said that forgiveness reduces anger and not only that, but it also improves academic performance, have you been able to see this in your students? Has there been any attitude of decrease in violence or improvement in their grades? 

When someone is installed in hatred and anger, they are in a self-destructive situation that destroys everything around them. A student who is pacified in the face of a conflict will perform much better than one who is in another situation.

-Talking about the meaning of this for your career, looking at your professional career as a lawyer, it is impressive that you dedicate yourself to this training project and introduce it into the university in such a spectacular way. What sense do you find in establishing this type of victim/victimizer encounter?

It has taught me a lot not only professionally, but also personally. And what I was saying before, that human beings are capable of the worst and capable of the best, nobody can say: “I would never do something like that”. We can’t say it, because also looking at the life circumstances, the companies…, we are not exempt from saying that we would never do that because we can’t know.

Just as man is capable of committing the most atrocious things, he is capable of the best: recognising the damage and trying in the smallest possible way to make emotional reparation to the victim. Well, it has taught me the greatness of the human being.

-In fact, you are now going to Boston to a Congress with great personalities in which you are going to contribute this grain of sand…

Yes, indeed. I’m going with Maixabel and we’re going to see if we can transmit the power of dialogue and forgiveness, which is tremendous. There is something very striking that I would like to highlight, and that is that before the meetings there were some informative meetings with the perpetrators that were very difficult and others with the victims that were easier, but in both interviews the two sides agreed on one thing.

The perpetrators said: “Forgiveness is useless, I have killed in the name of an organisation and it is the organisation that should ask for forgiveness, sitting face to face and asking for forgiveness is useless, what is it going to give the victim, it is a very short word for something so serious that I have committed, I am ashamed, it is absurd”.

The victims said: “I don’t want to be asked for forgiveness in order to live, I don’t need it”. So why do you need to sit face to face? Because I need to ask questions, to see how this person thinks, to make sure that this is not going to happen again and I want to be an example of peace for my children, and to tell them what hurt me, yes, but to set an example because I see that the next generations are installed in hatred and if we don’t set an example this is going to remain entrenched”.

It was very curious because in the meetings nobody wanted to talk about forgiveness. Only very believing people said that they came to forgiveness because their faith demanded it. The rest, for the future of Euskadi. And it is tremendous that at the end, after many hours, because the meetings last between 4 and 5 hours, forgiveness naturally comes up on the table, perhaps not with that word, but with: “I am very sorry”, “I wish I could go back”, “I wish I hadn’t done it”.

It’s tremendous. The victims when they came out said: “I thought that forgiveness was useless and it helps me a lot to know that this person is going to leave prison feeling what he has done and not proud with his fist raised, that he is aware of what he has done and that he is not going to do it again, this gives me back my confidence”. Forgiveness has a lot of power.

-Ester, it is a pleasure that you continue to work for Expanded Reasoning in your degree, with your students, outside and inside the university, and tell us about it at the Institute, we want to leave a small trace of what Expanded Reasoning is in a concrete case such as your daily work.

Thank you very much.

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