On December 11-12 last year, Fr Lee Young Woo, a visiting Korean priest from the Korean Catholic Social Correction Apostolate Committee, gave lectures in Tokyo. Fr Lee had been invited by "Stop the Death Penalty," the Religious Communities Network, and a special Committee of the Japan Catholic Council for Justice and Peace promoting abolition of the death penalty. Catholic Justice and Peace organized a gathering with Fr Lee at the Nicolas Barre Sisters of the Infant Jesus in Yotsuya on December 11. About 35 people attended Fr Lee's lecture. The next day he spoke again at Meiji University's Liberty Tower to a gathering of 52 people organized by the Religious Communities Network. Professor Park Byung Sick of Dongguk University in Korea acted as interpreter on both occasions.
Fr Lee has been the representative of the Catholic Social Correction Apostolate Committee for the last 12 years. This Committee was established by the Korean Bishops back in 1970. Its aim is the evangelization and humanization of society through pastoral concerns based on Christian gospel values. It works with victims of crime, prison inmates, and those released from prison. The Committee is composed of three priests, including Fr Lee, one Sister, a staff of more than ten, and a large number of volunteers. They use a 5-story and a 3-story building owned by the Committee. The publication of their monthly Newsletter has a circulation of 11,000.
Fr Lee considers prisoners not as sinful people, but "poor people, persons who have suffered sexual and other types of violence, people from broken families or with mental disabilities, always rejected by society." Since they are not treated as human beings because of their crimes and have to live as if they were already dead, the aim of pastoral activities for social correction is to meet with these people personally, show them unconditional love, and thus transmit to them the gospel of healing and reconciliation.
Masses and religious education are held in the prisons, as well as various programs for social rehabilitation. The core of the programs is what the Japanese call "Humanistic Education," its slogan being "I'm important. Education for you and for all of us." These prisoners have never been considered important by anybody, but they become capable of discovering the "goodness" hidden within themselves once they realize that God loves them.
Concretely, there is a special 90-hour program for sexual criminals and a 6-month group-counseling course called "Journey for self-development," under the auspices of the Department of Justice. Additionally, there are entertainment activities, like concerts, theater, and birthday parties.
Rather than confine youth offenders to correctional institutions or youth prisons, there is a trend in South Korea nowadays to treat youth offenders outside institutions by ordering them to do social service or attend lectures. Fr Lee participates in these activities, offering a 40-hour correctional course with a mentoring program at the end of the course, where volunteers meet personally with the youth.
Social rehabilitation assistance features a double program, offering both consultation and shelter facilities. Last year the Committee received more than 120 consultations concerned mainly with finding housing for released prisoners. Consequently, they decided to designate the 3rd floor of their 5-story building for lodging. There are 15 private rooms available, which former prisoners may use for a whole year. Some 20 persons use these facilities each year. Many former prisoners have never in the past had the opportunity of using private rooms and now have the opportunity to attain greater mental stability.
The Committee runs a bank known as the "Bank of Hope and Joy," which lends money to families of victims and released prisoners without any guarantee. The funds come from individual Catholics and companies. The government also provides loans at low interest. The highest amount per person is 20 million won (about 1,600,000 yen), for which repayment begins 6 months after the loan is granted and takes 54 months. Many worry about granting loans without guarantee, but Fr Lee says that he trusts the conscience and loyalty of the released prisoners, believing that obtaining loans without need of a guarantee will fill their lives with joy and hope.
Of course, former prisoners receive education for business and are obliged to present their plans before getting a loan, and persons concerned visit their work site to interview them. When the loan is granted, cash is not handed directly to them but to the owner or company of the house they rent and, in the case of renting a store, to the company setting up the shop. In the last year and a half since June 2008, more than 50 persons received loans, to the total of some 880,000,000 won (about 70,000,000 yen).
The Justice and Peace Committee of the Korean Bishops' Conference has established a small committee for abolition of the death penalty. This committee conducts Mass, liturgies, seminars, and promotes other public activities. The committee also runs ecumenical activities with Protestants and Buddhists, through an association working together to promote abolition of the death penalty. They organize protest gatherings and political lobbying to abolish capital punishment. In addition, they have promoted publication of a novel by a famous novelist based on the same theme. A film later produced on this novel has had great public impact.
Such activities and the policies of Kim Dae-jung's former government resulted in halting all executions after 1997, when 23 persons were executed. In December 2007 Amnesty International considered South Korea a country that had, in fact, abolished capital punishment because there had been no executions for 10 consecutive years.
Recently, the Committee has strengthened its activities for victims of crimes. Their priority is people in whose families someone has been killed.
An office for the liaison group was set up in the Committee's building. They have monthly meetings with a Mass, offer counseling and consultation by phone, and organize outdoor trips. The office brings families of crime victims together to share their grief and look for common healing through mutual encouragement.
Moreover, after a trip to the USA called "Journey of Hope," with families of death-row prisoners and families of victims traveling together in a program to abolish capital punishment, Fr Lee organized a "Mass of Reconciliation" back in South Korea for victim families and death-row prisoners. (However, on this occasion the prisoners were not those sentenced for the same crime suffered by the victim families attending the Mass.) These death-row prisoners had previously wanted to ask for forgiveness but had never had an opportunity to do so. After hearing from the victim families of the suffering inflicted by crimes such as theirs, they apologized sincerely and were forgiven by the victim families. At the end, as a sign of reconciliation, they embraced one another. According to Fr Lee, it was a very moving sight.
Many Catholics in Japan also work with victims of crime and assist in the rehabilitation of former inmates or visit prisoners on death row as prison chaplains. Nevertheless, there are no cases in Japan of any well-organized groups promoting the reconciliation of victims and criminals. There were voices among the participants in the seminar envying the work done in South Korea. Fr Lee encouraged everyone, saying: "We just started doing things we considered possible and, all of a sudden, the movement grew. If we continue believing in the importance of this work, there is no doubt that God will provide good results.
A documentary called "Forgiveness," showing the participation of a Korean victims' family in the American Journey of Hope, has been a hit in South Korea. Japanese NGOs are planning to translate the film into Japanese to foster awareness of the issue. Professor Park explains that formerly, for about 3 years, Japan stopped all executions and gave the impression that it would abolish the death penalty even before South Korea, but suddenly the situation was reversed. Professor Park's hope is that combined Korean-Japanese action could quickly lead to a solid movement in both countries towards abolition of the death penalty. I earnestly hope that our Catholic Church will play a role in accomplishing that.
===== Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved =====