Delivering circles of support and accountability to protect communities from sexual harm and sexual reoffending


What do we do about people who have committed serious offences?

This week we feature a guest blog by The Tablet, an international Catholic news weekly. Written by CSW Trustee, Stephen Ashton it asks how realistic it is to expect sex offenders not to re-offend.

Let me start by asking you a question. Just bring your gut reaction to mind. It’s about the behaviour of people who have committed serious sexual offences, and ended up in prison. Here it comes: if someone receives no further therapeutic help after leaving prison, what’s the probability they will remain offence-free for, say, four years? Choose from: 85 per cent, 50 per cent or 15 per cent.

Yes: this blog is all about the horror of sexual offending and what on earth to do about it.

My first introduction to this grimy world was with the revelation that a family friend, a fellow church-goer, had offended in this way and was prison-bound. My wife and I had to decide whether he was still a friend or not. In spite of finding the question hard to answer, we did what seemed right and offered him accommodation when he found himself with nowhere to go. It was on our mantelpiece that he left a farewell suicide note for his family. He was found unconscious in his car before dying, went through the nightmare of secure hospital, court appearances, divorce, and prison. We visited him; it seemed like the only thing we could do. Since then my wife and I have immersed ourselves in the business of society’s response to the problems caused by sexual offending. So it was with a weary, here-we-go-again misery that we read in the recent Tablet issue, of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s shame-inducing report.

At the same time as reading about terrible behaviours, and cowardly failures by church leaders to put victims at the heart of their response to them, my wife and I were also reading the chapter headed Affliction in Timothy Radcliffe’s Alive to God: a Christian Imagination. The chapter focuses on our response to Jesus’ carrying humankind’s affliction on the Cross. Referring to sexual abuse, it includes the sentence: “Does the Church dare to embrace now those whom we have afflicted?” …The chapter that follows moves us on to focus on “The Risen Life”. What forms of resurrection can we begin to discern in this mess?

Here are two linked suggestions, both of which centre round a community-based approach to the rehabilitation of people who have committed sexual offences, which also offer something like solace to victims, and the prospect of healing for the broader community too.

So: back to the opening question. It’s a commonly held view that ‘once a sex offender, always a sex offender’ – but this isn’t true. About 85 per cent of people who commit sex-based offences and consequently serve time in prison, do not re-offend on release, even if they receive no further rehabilitative support after leaving prison. (2018 Ministry of Justice figure reported in answer to parliamentary question UIN 157139). Did you get it right? Not many do – but, I suppose its “good” news of a sort. What about the remaining 15 per cent? The police and [robation services are skilled at identifying these high risk individuals. Their common attribute isn’t things like genetics or whether they were abused themselves in childhood (frequently the case), but – for whatever reason – social isolation. It’s the loners – or those that have loneliness forced upon them – who re-offend.

It was on a prison visit that we were introduced to the (now) well-established charity Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA) that I joined as a volunteer in 2005. It offers a unique approach to working with these high-risk individuals. Working in close co-ordination with Police and Probation, they enlist, train and support groups of four or five “ordinary” people who volunteer to meet weekly with one high-risk individual, called the “core member”, after they leave prison. These weekly meeting continue for a year or so, whilst the core member wrestles with all the stuff they have to face: finding suitable accommodation, finding suitable employment, dealing with relationship tensions, and so on.

This committed social contact is, in a word, transformational. Here’s what a core member said of his experience:

“I view Circles as a kind of bridge… simply a bunch of normal people who are genuinely supportive, providing me a safe place to seek advice and guidance, to give me a gentle nudge here and there … without the support of my Circle, life would be a whole lot more difficult.”

Long-term evidence points to the fact that in this high-risk group, if they experience a Circle, the vast majority go on to lead offence-free lives. The latest research report with a control-group comparison (Grant Duwe, Journal of Experimental Criminology March 2018) puts the offence-free proportion of the 15 per cent, after 4 years, at 88 per cent. Thus prison plus Circle reduces recidivism by a massive 100 – (15 per cent x 12 per cent) = 98.2 per cent. The same article estimates that the cost saving to the state created by these non-offences is of the order of £30,000 for each offender who stays clean. But of course, money is hardly the best measure: here’s a better one: many victims report that they are profoundly grateful for Circles: the fact that others are prevented from going through their trauma is a significant form of solace. Speaking in a Sky Report, (Inside the Circle, April 2019) a victim says, “….if you can help someone to stop that happening to more children then- why would you not try to help them…”

Which leads to the first suggestion: the primary issue CoSA have to deal with (after funding), is the availability of volunteers. Particularly men. Why not consider volunteering with Circles as one part of a pro-active, community-based solution to these problems?

Second suggestion. One of the ways to bring positive responses to this crisis into view: is to talk about them. Circles South West (of which I am now a trustee) was on the point of planning out a national conference focussed on developing both the understanding of, and ways to move forward with, these issues in the context of all our religious lives. Timothy Radcliffe has expressed interest in supporting this if he can. The aim is to make our church communities part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Engagement of folk from all walks of life is central. We’ll get this going again soon. Would you like to join us in person or online?

There’s a third development in prospect. Circles UK are researching whether it might be possible to form a new form of church-based Circle, tentatively called Fellowship Circles. In partnership with the Catholic Church, trial Fellowship Circles are being established in two dioceses, one urban and one rural, with detailed evaluation procedures in place. Could this offer a substantial way forward?

All these approaches help to heal society as much as individuals. Surely, this is a perfect model for our ‘field hospital’ church: offering the prospect of small and not-so-small resurrections out of this crucifying affliction?

Find out more about Circles here.

If you’d like to discuss this further, please contact me

PS Here’s a postscript: it’s a quote from What Do Victim/survivors of Sexual Violence Think about Circles of Support and Accountability? Kelly Richards et al, published in the academic journal Victims and offenders 2020:

A number of survivors originally adopted one position about CoSA before expressing a different opinion later in the interview. For example, a participant who initially responded that “I don’t think they’re worthy of it [CoSA] . . . they should just be all locked up somewhere and just leave them there because they can’t be rehabilitated” later expressed a different view, claiming: “I think it would be a good thing. Particularly you know they’ve got a circle of five people . . . yeah I think that sounds like a great idea”. By the end of her interview, this participant claimed that she would even consider volunteering in a CoSA.

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