Is forgiveness always possible?

Dictionary definition of the word forgive

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Last Christmas Eve, 68-year-old church organist Alan Greaves was brutally attacked on his way to Midnight Mass, where he was due to play the organ as he had done for 40 years.

He died from his injuries three days later, yet his widow Maureen decided to forgive her husband's killers. "I forgave them and placed them in God's hands," she says.

The couple, both practising Christians, worked for the Church Army and Alan Greaves was a lay preacher.

Mrs Greaves admits her resolve to forgive faltered slightly, when she attended the trial of her husband's killers, Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster.

Maureen and Alan Greaves Alan and Maureen Greaves married in 1972

"It was a very deeply emotional moment, there were these two young men and I was seeing their faces for the first time.

"And the thought went through my head, what have you done? Because you've taken away the person I loved most in the world and Alan loved me the most in the world."

The attack in High Green, Sheffield, was so vicious that Mr Greaves' injuries were said to be consistent with those sustained in a road accident.

Neither man would explain why they had set upon the retired social worker.

As she recalls the trial, Mrs Greaves speaks quietly with a soft Yorkshire accent despite the graphic details she recalls.

"To stamp on him and kick him at the end, and they stamped on his face and kicked his face.

"And yet again, if I looked at them, there was nothing in me that wanted to go back on the decision I had made.

"I didn't feel hatred when I looked at them, it was almost a kind of bewilderment."

Sense of closure

But can forgiveness actually help with the grieving process? Rev Dr Alison Gray, associate lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire thinks so.

"There is evidence people who forgive can heal faster," she says.

However, Dr Gray recognises forgiveness is not always possible. Sometimes the person responsible for the pain is no longer around.

In that case, she suggests writing a letter to the perpetrator, even if there is no intent to ever post it. The process gives the individual the chance to write about what has happened to them, and ceremoniously setting fire to the letter, she believes achieves a sense of closure.

Helen McCourt Helen McCourt went missing 25 years ago

Some families who have lost loved ones in horrific circumstances do not think they have the right to forgive.

Each weekend the McCourt family from Merseyside searched for Helen McCourt's body. They searched canals and riverbanks, her brother crawled through drains. The family even cleared mine shafts in the hope of uncovering the 22-year-old's remains.

Marie McCourt knows Ian Simms murdered her daughter, but the convicted killer refuses to reveal where he hid the young insurance clerk's body and still denies killing Helen.

Twenty-five years on from Helen's disappearance, Mrs McCourt, a devout Catholic, lights a candle and says a prayer each week hoping her daughter's remains will be found and she can finally have a Christian burial.

Julie Nicholson

Julie Nicholson was an ordained priest who stepped down from her role when she was unable to forgive the suicide bomber that killed her daughter in the 7/7 bombings.

Mrs McCourt is quite clear about who has the right to forgive.

"I am a religious person, my faith has got me through this and I started feeling, well what kind of a Christian am I?

"I thought and thought about it and came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, we don't have the right to forgive a crime that has been committed against another person."

Mrs McCourt gives support to other families trying to cope after losing a loved one, the group is called SAMM, which stands for 'support after murder and manslaughter.'

"I've dealt with [people] in our group, a lot of them are very angry saying they can't forgive. And to help them I always reassure them, you don't have to worry about that, as you don't have the right to forgive. I do think it has helped them deal with things."

Mrs McCourt says her faith has got her through her darkest days and helps her to enjoy time with her family.

Start Quote

I just saw broken people and we were broken too, so we actually had something in common”

End Quote Lyn Connolly

"I've always accepted there has to be a reason why Helen hasn't been found and I've always thought, maybe it was for this man to realise what he has done," she says.

She has no doubt her daughter's kindness and grace meant she could have forgiven her killer. But she thinks Helen could not have forgiven the 25 years Simms has spent denying her mother the opportunity to give her a proper burial.

'Cycle of crime'

Other families have used restorative justice to try to make sense of the unthinkable.

Paul Connolly was stabbed to death on a street in the Anfield area of Liverpool in 2002. The crime was senseless, the 28 year old was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Less than 24 hours later, Paul's parents Lyn and Mick Connolly, told a packed press conference they forgave their son's killers.

Looking back on that dreadful day, Mrs Connolly says: "Mick and I both just said, we forgive. I must admit as the words came out of my mouth, it was a surprise to me."

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice
  • Restorative justice gives the victims of a crime a chance to communicate with the perpetrators
  • It is also practised in some schools, as a way to tackle bullying
  • According to the Restorative Justice Council, face-to-face dialogue between the victim and the perpetrator reduces reoffending by 14%

The Connollys have gone on to tell their story in prisons across the country as part of a victim awareness programme run by Prison Fellowship to teach restorative justice in prisons.

Visiting a prison for the first time was a daunting prospect for Mrs Connolly.

"I thought they will swear and they won't be interested. They will probably talk while I'm talking. But it was none of those things, you could hear a pin drop and they just listened."

'Something in common'

Mr and Mrs Connolly were surprised when they felt a connection to the offenders on the six-week course, some of them serving life sentences.

"I thought I'd feel angry when I went into the prison, but I waited and it didn't happen, I looked out and I just saw broken people and we were broken too, so we actually had something in common."

Mrs Connolly has since discovered many of the offenders she has met over the years have also lost loved ones, whether through domestic abuse or random acts of violence.

"Sometimes people think violence is the answer, even revenge, but it just leaves you cold and empty. And it continues that cycle of crime."

Mrs Connolly says her son's killers, Anthony Gaskell, formerly of Anfield and Ryan Gildea of Tuebrook, have never shown remorse, but she believes she can have an impact on others who have committed similar crimes.

Start Quote

Pain was inflicted, but it doesn't have to bind you anymore”

End Quote Rev Dr Alison Gray

"You know you can talk to your friends and family about it, but you don't really go into too much detail and you don't really tell them how you feel. But here I felt, these are actually the exact people I need to speak to, say how I feel," she says.

Forgiveness is not always possible but there is no doubt it can sometimes help heal even the deepest of wounds.

"Pain was inflicted, but it doesn't have to bind you anymore," Dr Gray says.

For the widow of murdered church organist Alan Greaves, forgiveness has not always been easy. Maureen Greaves recalls how she struggled with it early on in her marriage.

"As a Christian, I obviously knew it was right to forgive people and at the beginning of our marriage when I was having some difficulty, Alan said to me 'you know Maureen, we mustn't give ourselves permission to behave like this, it isn't honouring God,'" she says.

Alan Greaves died on 27 December 2012 and one year on, Maureen is sure she was right to forgive his killers despite the pain of her loss.

As she prepares to spend her first Christmas without her husband, she says: "We were two people who truly found the right partner, I don't use it lightly when I say he was my soulmate."

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