by Helen Johnson - Manchester Evening News
They were burgled and hounded in the street. This is what happened when they met the people who did it.
“He definitely had a big hand in making us think, again, about how people’s lives go off the track”
As priest Paula Robinson stared into the face of the nervous character sitting across the table, she had a moment of recognition.
Her church, St Agnes in Reddish, had once given this man money when he was struggling to make ends meet.
But he had gone on to repay their kindness by breaking into the church and stealing from them.
As Christians, the ‘bottom line’ for Paula and her congregation is to forgive wrongdoers.
But it wasn’t until Paula was offered the opportunity to come face to face with the convicted burglar that she truly realised just how deeply his actions had affected everyone, finally allowing them to heal and move on.
Paula is one of more than 100 victims of crime who have received support from the Greater Manchester Restorative Justice Service, since its launch last summer.
The process aims to make criminals face up to their actions and give victims a sense of closure by offering both parties the chance to talk face to face.
The service is commissioned by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, working in partnership with Greater Manchester Police and other agencies across Greater Manchester, and is delivered by Remedi and ROC Restore – a specialist restorative justice charity providing a one-stop shop for all things restorative justice.
Here Paula, along with Tony Wright, 22, who met a group of youths who attempted to mug him, tell the Manchester Evening News how restorative justice helped them come to terms with the crimes committed against them.
Crime victims speak about restorative justice programme
“He definitely had a big hand in making us think, again, about how people’s lives go off the track”
Two Christmases ago, the congregation of St Agnes Church in Reddish were looking forward to their annual fair.
The event plays a crucial role in helping the small community church be as self sufficient as possible, and function as a supportive hub for residents of the Stockport suburb, regardless of their faith.
They had particularly high hopes for that year’s raffle, after receiving donations of expensive bottles of alcohol, including high end champagne.
“The people in Reddish who are the mainstay of the church are pensioners with only a state pension,” said Paula.
“No one is rich, so to get this wonderful bounty of things was great.
“Then I got a phone call to say we’d been broken into”.
The thief had taken the donated bottles that the congregation had hoped would help boost their funds.
“Everybody rallied together, they were narked. A bit cross, but we managed to have a Christmas fair,” added Paula.
“We also had to clear up the mess, get the window fixed. The most expensive thing was putting in a burglar alarm and the insurance excess.
“Worse than it costing money was the fact it made people nervous. The neighbours were wonderful and kept an eye on the church.
“We talked about it and the fact that because it was the booze (that was stolen), it was probably somebody who needed to get off their head.
“People were nervous, thinking someone would be waiting to get into the church if they came here in the evening.
“We had to have a rule that no one was in the church on their own, which really upset some people, because every volunteer had to make sure there was someone with them.
“Then we forgot about it, in the whole scheme of things the police have enough on their hands. Until we heard the police had caught the person who had done it.”
While the man responsible was prosecuted through the courts, Paula and the church were asked if they would like to be involved in restorative justice.
“I thought it was good, we’ll have the chance to speak to the person and have the chance to do good to the person who did it,” added Paula.
“When the group of us were talking to Remedi, it became clear that it really had affected people.
“The junior warden had to spend hours sorting stuff.
“Other people had heard older congregation members asking if it was okay to come in the evening. There was still a lot of anger there”.
Paula was warned in advance that she might know the person responsible.
It turned out that the church had previously given the man money when he was struggling financially.
“My mandate was to let the perpetrator know that we had to forgive him, but also that he had affected us,” added Paula.
“We were a community that didn’t just exist for ourselves, we exist to create a service for the community around us, whether they were church goers or not.
“It’s a community place and the small group of us keep the place going, not just for ourselves but for anybody who wants to be there.
“They may be a poor congregation but last year they gave 23 rucksacks to the Wellspring because they wanted to do good.
“Every time there’s an appeal they give money, we support the foodbank. We are there to be a positive thing in the community.
“I went to meet this person who would break into a church, and I was warned I might know him.
“I did know his face, he had been one of the people to whom we’d given money on a Sunday morning because he didn’t have anything.
“I was quite up front with him about it making people nervous, people cross, that we were struggling as a congregation to keep it going, but it was important for us to keep on going because if the church closed, something would be lost to the community”.
Paula discovered that the man was struggling with alcohol at the time of the break in – so much so that he had no recollection of actually doing it.
“He looked a sad fellow,” said Paula. “He was more than 30 mins late because he was so frightened about coming.
“But, he sat and listened. We were sitting face to face, and he talked about the fact that he was now clean and dry, living with his mother, his dog, the event itself, which he could not remember.
“He had absolutely no recollection of breaking into the church but he was so inept he’d left his finger prints everywhere so the police found him.
“It stuck him all of a sudden that he had done something he was unaware of, and I think for him it was kind of like the bottom of the pit.
“He used a strange phrase, but it made me think, this man had been thinking about it. He said: “I broke into the home of your religion.’
“It was a weird phrase but it told me he knew that it wasn’t just breaking into a building and getting some booze, he knew something about it.
“I said if you ever want to come to church you’d be welcome, no one would ever know it was you”.
Paula returned to church and told the congregation about the meeting
“It really changed things.
“People who profess to be Christians are supposed to forgive, that’s a bottom line thing for us, but it’s amazing how we can hold onto resentment,” added Paula.
“I didn’t know we’d held on to resentment, me too.
“I got more out of that because it reminded me again of that thing, that none of us are exempt from failing into the pit and I just thought about how much more, the man was already paying for his lifestyle.
“He’d been censured by the courts. The money (which he paid back in installments of around £2.60 a week) may not sound like a lot of money, but every time he gave it to us out of what little he has, he’s reminded that he did something, of which he is ashamed. “I’m not saying that St Agnes was the reason he stopped drinking and is back looking after his mother, but maybe we had a small hand in it.
“He definitely had a big hand in making us think, again, about how people’s lives go off the track. How all our lives can go off the track and about how we’re lucky that we’ve had people there to stop us going off the rails”.
After I felt so, so at peace, and there was no stress. I felt we’d done something good, and got through to them”
Tony Wright, 22, was walking to Manchester city centre along the canal path from his home in Droyslden when a group of youths tried to mug him.
As Tony got near the group, one of the boys stepped into his path, while the others surrounded him.
They demanded Tony hand over his belongings, but he stood his ground and refused.
“It wasn’t a long ordeal, it was about three minutes, but they just kept getting more aggressive, more hands on, pushing me, and I just didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Tony, an office worker and stand up comic.
“It was no more than a few minutes but there were loads of them there, any longer and I think it would have escalated into something worse”.
Tony decided to make a break for it, but just as he was about to run, the group scattered.
That’s when he saw two police officers on the towpath.
It transpired that they’d been called because another person had been mugged a short time earlier.
The incident left Tony shaken, and with a sense of anxiety about being out in public.
Police offered him a number of options, which included pursuing the attempted mugging through the courts, or the chance to try restorative justice.
He chose the latter.
“I’d never heard of it and I was quite sceptical, but there was a part of me that knew that was the one I should do,” he added.
“Restorative justice would give them a second chance but has but has a higher success rate of rehabilitating them into not committing these sorts of things again.
“It was a mix of scepticism and hope because I’d never heard of this before, I didn’t know how it would help in anyway, I thought ‘they wouldn’t have a criminal record, they are going to get off Scot free and they are just going to go out and do this again’. But there was a piece of me that thought ‘what if?'”
Tony talked through what would happen at the meeting with restorative justice staff, before finally coming face to face with all nine boys and their parents.
“When the crime happened, I couldn’t really picture who it was,” he added.
“When I saw them, I saw the same shape of people, but their faces told a completely different story.
“These people weren’t laddy, they weren’t having fun, they were remorseful, they were regretful, they were sorry.
“They had already realised the extent of what they had done.
“If we would have taken them to court, I think it would have just angered them, they have already come to terms with what they had done.
“I got to say everything that was on my mind. I got to explain to them the knock on effects, the nervousness I have being out in public now, always being worried about my own safety and I felt like they really, really listened to me.
“None of them spoke up, they just let me say my piece, and they got to say theirs, how they felt that day and how they feel now, and that was really powerful for me.
“It was just very therapeutic, their parents spoke about the knock on effects to the family.
“There were so many things that just make them go ‘right, let’s never do this again.’
“After I met all one to one and shook their hands, talked to their parents, one had written me a note explaining how sorry he was
“It was nothing I could have imagined but after I felt so, so at peace, and there was no stress, nothing. I felt we’d done something good, and got through to them.”
Tony has since learned that all but one of the boys has stayed out of trouble since their meeting.
“We lost one along the way but eight out of nine is incredible. The ninth person tried to get three others involved and they all refused, which is a huge thing.
“They were faced with the opportunity to go down a dark path, and now they are in the mindset to say ‘no, I don’t want to do that.’
“All that came from just us talking. I’m much happier with that than I would be if I got them a criminal record. If I got to choose again I’d do this each time
“After hearing me talk about how I felt, the apologies were really genuine. It allowed them to own up to their actions and understand that their actions have consequences.”
The boys’ parents all attended the meeting with their sons.
“One dad stood up at the end of the session and addressed all of the offenders as one,” added Tony.
“He said ‘you’ve been given an opportunity now, this is your second chance and this is your only chance. Make the right decision, because we’ve all come here to explain to you what will happen next. If you continue to act the way you do, don’t expect any of us to be there as your safety net, you’re on your own if you continue’.
“All the rest of the parents were in agreement. They themselves came up to me afterwards to apologise when it’s not their job to apologise, none of them knew what was happening that day.
“Something I got to say was ‘whether you end up in court is not for me to decide. I want to give you this opportunity, because if you go on to do something now and wind up back here, then that’s on you. Let’s do this, let’s see how it goes and your future is up to you to decide’.
“I wouldn’t leave the house a couple of months ago, but now I have the confidence to do what I want to do and not be scared to live my life.