What do you do when a friend is accused of a crime? And what if that crime is creating and disseminating child pornography?
That's what's happened to me. Before Christmas, a friend was arrested and charged with that crime.
The news came as a shock. My friend has been involved with his national church body and is also involved in his local church. Although he lives in another province and we don't see each other very often, I have always admired his skills, abilities and appreciated our conversations.
But now he faces very serious charges and I'm conflicted. He is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. But if it's true, how can I not be repulsed by what he is accused of doing? On the other hand, I want to reach out, to be of support in some way -- let him know that I still value our friendship.
But if I do that, will people think I don't take the crime of child pornography seriously? Will I be judged for wanting to still be his friend? Worse, would I be considered guilty by association? And what about my friend's wife and children -- how do they feel? Are they getting the support they need?
It was while pondering this that I realized that crime involves more than just the offender, the victim and the victim's family and friends -- it happens to the offender's family and friends, too. The difference is that while there are services and supports for victims and their families, there isn't much to help people cope spiritually, emotionally and psychologically when a loved one commits a crime.
When it comes to support for families of people accused or convicted of crimes, "there isn't much available," says Joan Carolyn, director of Circles of Support and Accountability, a church-supported program that helps sex offenders reintegrate into society.
A few services exist, she says, but they are "usually parts of other programs, a subsection of working with offenders."
The result, she says, is that families of the accused or offenders are on their own, struggling to find ways to support their loved one but still take the crime seriously.
Glenn Morison, who directs Open Circle, another church-supported program that provides support for offenders, agrees.
"There's a giant need" for this kind of support, he says, adding that people who are related to an offender often fear they will be "painted with the same brush."
Some informal efforts have been started in Manitoba to help offenders' families, he says, but they haven't continued.
If such a program could be launched, "I can't help but think it would be valuable," he says.
One person who knows only too well what it's like to go through this kind of hell is Canadian Shannon Moroney. Her then-husband, Jason Staples, was arrested in 2005 for sexually assaulting two women.
Dealing with the shock of her husband's crime was hard enough, she says. She also had to deal with people who wondered why she didn't see "any signs of the brutality that was to come, but the fact is that there were no signs. I couldn't have known."
Following her husband's arrest, Moroney was on her own, "frequently chosen as the target of accusations, judgment and blame. I even lost my job. Police victims' services turned me away. Upon learning that I had visited Jason, some people demanded to know what was wrong with me."
Were it not for the "compassionate support of my family and other friends, I wouldn't have survived," she says.
Of her experience, Moroney says: "Families of offenders face an uphill battle to overcome the stigma of guilt by association and to regain control of their lives after their loved one has committed a crime. At times I felt so vulnerable and desperate that I wished I could trade places with Jason -- that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me -- instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind."
Today, Moroney is remarried and promotes restorative justice as a way to deal with crime -- including crime done by a loved one. Through it all, she has found "the peace offered by forgiveness" as she faces the "harmful effects of losing so many hopes and dreams to crime."
As for my friend's family, I pray that they will find the support they need during this difficult time.
I will pray for those victimized by child pornography. And I will pray for my accused friend, too.