“Reconciling Retribution and Rehabilitation”

Matthew P. Cavedon

Ten-year-old Shane Paul O’Doherty pledged to “fight and if necessary die for Ireland’s freedom.” By the time he was 18, he had joined the Irish Republican Army and “developed the letter bomb” after reading about its use by the Palestinian Liberation Organization. For two years, he “bombed Derry into the ground” and sent “dozens and dozens” of bombs to British officials. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 life terms, plus another 20 years for good measure.

His life literally could have ended in prison. Instead, it began anew. Mr. O’Doherty may have been the first IRA man to publicly apologize to his victims. He published a letter “saying the armed struggle was immoral,” leading a former comrade to threaten his life. He joined a new prison wing dedicated to bringing together IRA convicts and their opponents. After ten years of incarceration, he was released from custody. He published his memoirs and has spent years working for peace.

One of the key debates in criminal jurisprudence, and all of social philosophy, is the purpose of punishment. Scholars usually pose the main trade-off as being between society’s need for retribution and the offender’s need for rehabilitation. But a closer look at Mr. O’Doherty’s experience suggests that these two needs actually go hand in hand. The need for both society and the offender is reconciliation. Reconciliation requires the offender to undergo retribution so as to come to know the wrongfulness of a crime and what justice demands of him. But it also requires society to meet such repentance with merciful welcome and affirm that the offender’s humanity – not his guilt – takes precedence. 

True mercy only happens when there is awareness of how far off justice is and efforts are made to make amends for that.

Reconciliation came for Mr. O’Doherty and the British and Irish societies in which his life was caught up. It did so by way of religion. Mr. O’Doherty first encountered Christ in an unexpected man – a priest who so detested the Irish that he demanded his passport read “English” instead of “British,” “because he couldn’t stand being mixed in with the Celts.” Even though the two met in the 1970s, at the height of progressive Christianity, this stern reverend father did not offer Mr. O’Doherty a “candy-floss talk.” Instead, the prisoner was led through the Gospels to “a nuclear explosion” – specifically, the conviction that in mailing out explosives, he had acted “in contravention of God’s law” and was risking his eternal soul to Hell. Then, sitting in solitary confinement, Mr. O’Doherty read a pamphlet setting forth the three main characteristics of sin: “the sinner feels a sense of isolation from God, the sinner feels a sense of isolation from the community around him or her, and the sinner feels a sense of isolation from his or herself.” He saw his own predicament looking back at him from the page.

He met a new prison chaplain and sacramentally confessed his sins. But he did not believe he could “come back to the Church, to the Eucharist, until [he] had made some kind of symbolic effort toward [his] victims.” He eventually convinced the authorities to let him privately apologize. But a British tabloid made this known. The IRA was furious. Comrade prisoners “turned their back on [Mr. O’Doherty] in prison, in the prison yard, wouldn’t speak to [him].” They again discussed killing him. 

But Mr. O’Doherty was unafraid. The retribution he was undergoing had given his Catholic faith time to bring integrity and calm to his inner life, together with a desire to reconcile himself with the British people. Soon, religion would also facilitate his harmonization with the very Irish who had reacted negatively to his apologies. At first, when Mr. O’Doherty spoke “the language of repentance, change, peace, making amends, making peace, confronting your victims, giving up violence,” many Irish saw it as treachery. But when Pope John Paul II arrived on the Emerald Isle in 1979 with the same message, Mr. O’Doherty met a new attitude: “People who couldn’t understand where I was coming from suddenly bounced into me and said, ‘Oh my God, the pennies just dropped! You mean you want to become like a repentant Christian!’” Mr. O’Doherty’s faith had turned his heart to the world. Now, Ireland’s turned its soul to him.

Mr. O’Doherty’s experience stands as a lesson against two extremes in punishment. One focuses on rehabilitation so much that it coddles the offender. Mr. O’Doherty rejects this as weak water. Nowadays, he writes, “I mention the word repentance and people say, you know, ‘Fuck off, it’s not relevant anymore, don’t burden people with the notion of sin and guilt, move on . . . it’s an old-style Christianity.’” But it was only by “being at the heart of the Church’s teaching on conversion and repentance” that he found “the power . . . to break away from the paramilitary.” A squishier religion simply is not hard enough to set young men like him free. Says Mr. O’Doherty:

I’m often astonished at modern Catholic spirituality that’s supposed to appeal to men, and young men – and, you know, bad boys – that’s so . . . effeminate. I can’t understand how young men in gangs, or young men in crime, or drugs, or prison, or paramilitary groups are ever going to be attracted by anything other than something manly, masculine – if that’s allowed anymore. The idea that you can promote God as this big, fluffy, dopey piece of candy floss in the sky who just forgives everything – that’s not going to appeal to anyone in gangs or paramilitaries. It’s not going to move anybody either.

Preaching forgiveness without demanding conversion fails to work repentance, and without repentance, there is no real reconciliation with victims and society. Mr. O’Doherty knows many IRA men “who struggle every day with terrible things they did in the past,” but have not sought forgiveness and so have not been reconciled because they believe that God “forgives everybody” anyway. Nobody has “warned them about sin and the loss of their souls and hellfire,” so they sit in tormented, alienated complacency. True mercy only happens when there is awareness of how far off justice is and efforts are made to make amends for that.

But Mr. O’Doherty’s life also shows the pitfalls of letting vengeance run amok. Mr. O’Doherty is alive and free today, publicizing his memoirs and helping people heal from violence. This is only possible because British and Irish society met his repentance with mercy. The British government did not execute him. It paroled him after he served a mere fraction of his infinite sentence. The Irish people moved from deeming him a traitor to accepting him as a voice for humanity and peace. They did not forever brand him an enemy. 

Mr. O’Doherty needed sharp retribution from God and government to come to terms with his crimes. But repentance and forgiveness came in time for him to live and give life to others in turn. His punishment succeeded. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “Reconciling Retribution and Rehabilitation.” Canopy Forum, October 23, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/10/23/reconciling-retribution-and-rehabilitation/