Harry Nigh. (Photo: Daniel Ehrenworth)

Topics: Justice | Interview

Harry Nigh started groundbreaking sex-offender support group

The Circles of Support and Accountability model has spread worldwide

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Twenty-five years ago, Harry Nigh led a com­mun­ity effort in Hamilton to provide nearly constant companionship and support to a high-risk sex-­offender named Charlie as he was released from prison. With this help, Charlie never reoffended. Today, the model established by this initial experiment (called a Circle of Support and Accountability, or COSA) has been replicated worldwide as a way to support the reintegration of high-risk offenders. Nigh spoke with Julie McGonegal.

Julie McGonegal: Tell me about Charlie. Who was he?

Harry Nigh: Charlie was kind of this “throwaway” kid. He had been institutionalized much of his life. He grew up at the Huronia Regional Centre [an institution for the intellectually disabled] and had been terribly abused as a child. And he became a sexual offender of children himself. I got to know him during my time as a program co-ordinator for a non-profit. I eventually left that career and became a Mennon­ite minister in Hamilton.

Then I got a phone call from the psychologist at the penitentiary. Charlie was going to be sent back into the community — without any supervision. Basically, he had nowhere to go.

I knew that if someone didn’t step up, he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. I didn’t know how to say no, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone. So I asked my congregation about it: what if we were to create a circle for Charlie and call it “Charlie’s angels”?

And so began this journey.

JM: Our empathy doesn’t usually extend to pedophiles. In fact, we fear and revile them.

HN: And that’s a holy fear. As parents, our job is to protect our kids. But what do we do as a church? Do we invite them to be part of our community? Eventually that’s what we did. We met as a congregation. It was a touchy situation: how do we still keep our community safe?

We had a woman in the congregation who had issues of addiction and mental illness in her family. She had an awakening. And one day, she stood up and said, “If Jesus hadn’t welcomed me, where would I be?” I think that swayed the group.

JM: And what happened?

HN: Three months after Charlie came out of prison, another guy, Wray Budreo, came out in Toronto. And a group at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, in conjunction with some Mennonite volunteers, formed a second circle around him. His case was slightly different, but he was also a sexual offender with repeated incarceration.

Over time, these guys basic­ally kept their noses clean through a very spontaneous and simple model of involvement. It was a very different response from the polarizing one of “get them out of here.”

So, we took our model to Correctional Service Canada, and they funded a pilot project through the Mennonite Central Committee to establish a certain number of circles for high-risk offenders who fit the criteria.

JM: How did the circles grow and gain legitimacy?

HN: Correctional Service Canada did an evaluation. They followed 60 guys and found that those who had a circle of support had an approximately 70 percent reduction in the reoffence rate.

The model spread across Canada, into the United States, then into Europe and Australia and South Korea, and so on. They’ve had similar results.

We’ve had people who have, tragically, reoffended. So the circles aren’t fool-proof or stand-alone. But they do involve the whole community. This is a community issue, and the circles are about community embrace rather than exclusion.

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JM: How did it feel to witness the success of the circles?

HN: I was blown away. I began to realize that maybe this was not just about me. Maybe a loving God was also embracing these guys. It felt like something that was part of the peaceable kingdom. And I’ve always felt that: the sense that these guys are not outside the bounds of God’s love.

We celebrated the fact that, for the first time, Charlie had his own place; we celebrated his anniversaries. And then in 2006, he was supposed to come to our place for Christmas, but he didn’t; I found him dead from a heart attack. But he had never reoffended in that time.

And Budreo never reoffended. These are men who were able to come home to themselves and find themselves, men who were able to live in the community in a way that was dignifying. And then there are all the kids who have not been hurt — you can’t measure that, but it’s true.

We never expected people to embrace this — to say, “We love pedophiles.” But when we ask the question, “Would you rather have this man in a basement apartment on his own, or do you want your neighbours looking after him?” — well, people can’t help but agree that the circles are a good thing.

JM: Could this model be applied to all offenders? 

HN: Absolutely, it’s for all offenders. It’s the greatest plague for people who have been in the system to have lost community support. The isolation, the shame of having been inside, the feeling of having “prisoner” tattooed on their forehead.

JM: How can faith communities better support people coming out of the prison system?

HN: There are a number of different ministries and agencies that allow people to get involved. There’s the simple concept of sitting down together regu­larly and listening to one another’s stories — that is key.

So often, we don’t have opportunities to simply listen. We need to listen to one another and walk alongside without necessarily asking people to change. It doesn’t mean you validate misconduct or criminal behaviour. But you ask, “Who are you?” Or maybe, “What does that tattoo mean?” It’s about creating circles of trust — no preaching, no studying each other’s flaws — so that together we turn to the grace of God.

JM: It sounds like you’ve been changed, too.

HN: It’s been life-giving. There are now about 150 circles across Canada, and they stand like a light on the hill. We don’t always have to throw people away; we don’t always have to give up on people. We can be actively involved and a healing presence.

So I say to people in the faith community, get your hands dirty. The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez asks: how do you work against poverty if you don’t know the name of one poor person? Justice needs to have a personal, relational dimension, otherwise we’re talking theory. If you walk alongside someone, and they begin to trust you with their story and open up their heart, you become a friend. Then justice takes on a whole new perspective.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

It first appeared in Broadview’s November 2019 issue with the title “Circle of support.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont., where she attends Burton Avenue United.

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