Tuesday, I asked everyone to send a letter to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole to ask that they not pardon a convicted abuser of her abuse of a student 20 years ago. Today, I decided to go to her hearing myself, in the hopes that I could shed some light on the unintended consequences that could come about through such a pardon. I knew it would likely be a difficult thing to do. What I didn't expect was that my heart would be touched and that I would find myself hoping that she might consider using her story to help us educate others.
Upon arriving outside of the hearing chambers, I immediately met Lana, the woman asking to be pardoned for the crime she committed 20 years ago when she was a 26 years old choir teacher, against a 17 year old student. I told her honestly that I was there to shed some light on why I did not feel she should be pardoned by the state. I explained who I was and what my experience had been as a teenager abused by a teacher. I told about the bills we passed this year that make sure that those who have been convicted of such crimes can never have a teaching license in the state of Utah and how pardoning her sentence would make her eligible to teach here again, as her crime would be undiscoverable. I also explained that I do not wish her any harm, and actually hope she is happy and continues to have a successful and joyful life. I told her that I do not believe condemnation needs to last forever, but that some consequences must.
She tearfully told me how sorry she is for the abuse that I endured. I could tell she was sincere and appeared to be a sweet woman who was truly sorrowful for the poor choices she had made as a young woman years ago. I reiterated that I wish her no harm and only feel it is important that when the parole board makes the decision, that they have all of the relevant information concerning what the consequences will be. I then left her to prepare for her hearing and went to wait in the hallway until it began.
It turned out that the room was full, but I was the only one there not intending to specifically urge the board to pardon Lana. I felt deeply for her family and friends. I am confident they are good people and that their love for Lana is genuine. The Pardon and Parole Board asked very detailed questions, exploring not only her decisions and mindset at the time of her offense, but of subsequent events in her life, including her very recent decision to marry a man who she met only 3 months before, and who also sexually abused one of his choir students approximately 5 years ago, and bears the consequences of that conviction.
As I listened to her testimony, my opinion remained the same, that perpetrators of child sexual assault need to have this information left on their record in order to protect future children and to honor the laws that our citizens have deemed necessary to protect our society. But my heart was filled with compassion for this woman. She has obviously made a huge effort to make sure that everyone in her life is aware of her past conviction, including all of her current voice students and their parents. She has done her best to make amends. I would feel it safe to say she has been forgiven by her victim (who wrote a letter to the Pardoning Board), her family and friends, her religious leaders, and even society, as she has paid her debt years ago. And though I do feel that the record must stand to protect others, I felt a deep desire that she learn that it is time to forgive herself.
Lana believes that this pardon would do much to help her forgive herself, but my message to her, both in the hearing, and after is this: Having a bunch of paperwork be changed to erase her name, will not erase the guilt and self-hatred she is still living with. That is going to have to come from inside.
I have learned from hard self-experiences that self-hatred is a vicious poison that kills by degrees. It comes when we believe that we are somehow unforgivable...that we are unlovable...that there is no moving forward because of our tainted past. Self-hatred is an unproductive emotion. This does not mean that we should not take responsibility for our actions. On the contrary, people who are truly penitent generally are very willing to accept the consequences of all their actions, no matter what that entails. But we can take responsibility, pay the consequences, and learn how to move forward in our lives again.
As I testified before the board, I shared my genuine belief that Lana has probably truly changed. I expressed my desire for her ongoing happiness and her ability to forgive herself, and yet asked the board to refrain from granting her a pardon, as the need to protect our society is crucial and if she were to be pardoned of this crime, there would be no way for anyone to prevent her from teaching in the school system in the future, should she choose to do so.
At the end of the hearing, I made my way to Lana and gave her a hug, encouraging her to call me at some point to see if perhaps we can continue the conversation and work together to prevent these things from happening to future students...and future teachers. Sexual abuse devastates both parties involved.
I promised her I would pray for her whether she was pardoned or not, and encouraged her to lift her head and move forward in her life...in short, to be happy. And I truly hope she can do so.
As a victim-turned-survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it can be easy to condemn all perpetrators. It is tempting to look at them all as unforgivable, evil people who should never be allowed back into our society. But the truth is, people make mistakes. And people can change. Many do. And many do not. And often times, we are not really capable of discerning the difference between the two. So rather than having to "play God", I feel it is important to hold people accountable for their actions, and then allow them the room they need to change. But this does not mean that we need to trust them around our children once again. Our children are not the proper place to test someone's recovery or repentance.
I hope Lana calls. I hope she would consider sharing her story with others. I hope she can speak to other teachers about the dangers of inappropriate boundaries between educators and students and how we can change the school culture we find ourselves in. She could be a great force for good in this world as we strive together to find the delicate balance between mercy and justice.