A Long Healing Process

Murder victims' family members describe their struggle to rebuild lives

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

His daughter's murderer would die in three days' time, but Bud Welch told a McGuinn Hall audience on June 8 that he could find no comfort in the impending execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Nor, he added, did many of the other families bereaved by the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people.

Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation members Suzanne Bosler and Gus Lamm speak at a session during the "Healing the Wounds of Murder" conference. (Photo by Lee Pelligrini)

"When they take Tim McVeigh out of his cage and kill him, it's not going to do a damn thing to bring back my daughter," said Welch. "In fact, it's only going to make things worse."

Welch was a participant in "Healing the Wounds of Murder," a conference hosted on campus June 7-10 by Boston College and Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a national organization of families who have lost members to murder and oppose the death penalty.

The 25-year-old MVFR has more than 4,000 members, who, for many reasons, do not believe that capital punishment can help to reduce homicides in the United States or provide any solace for victims' families.

With the McVeigh execution - which had been scheduled to take place a month earlier - serving as an unexpected backdrop, members and supporters of MVFR joined victims' advocates, legal scholars and professionals, social service providers, activists and clergy in discussing how individuals and society respond in the aftermath of murder and violence.

Participants included Arun Gandhi, grandson of slain Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, Cardinal Bernard Law, and Sister Helen Prejean, a long-time death-penalty opponent and author of Dead Man Walking.

A number of workshops explored themes such as victim- offender mediation, restorative justice, forgiveness, spiritual and political foundations for reconciliation and the plight of family members of executed criminals.

The conference began with a memorial tree-planting ceremony next to the staircase leading to Rubenstein Hall. Each of the survivors in attendance helped plant the tree by placing a shovel full of soil upon its roots while saying the names of loved ones they were memorializing.

"There is this idea that if you really loved someone who was killed, you would want to put to death the person responsible," said MVFR Executive Director Renny Cushing, a former New Hampshire state representative whose father was murdered. "But that's not so.

"The death penalty prompts us to revisit murder, revictimize families, and create another family that grieves. And how does killing someone demonstrate that killing is wrong?"

"The death penalty is a false promise," said MVFR President Jennifer Bishop of Winnetka, Ill., whose pregnant sister and her husband were shot dead in their home in 1990.

Bishop said her dying sister's last act was to draw in her own blood a heart with the letter "u" in it. Bishop said she and her family have taken that as a message against killing of any kind.

MVFR representatives said the group does not hold to one particular path to reconciliation: Some members seek to interact with, and eventually offer forgiveness to, the murderers of their loved ones, but not all do.

Bishop said she has come to forgive her sister's murderer, who is serving three life sentences without parole. But Bishop and the other MVFR speakers said many members are frustrated in their attempts at reconciliation by the justice system.

"We are often dismissed by prosecutors, police, attorneys general, and state legislative task forces," said Bishop. "We need to be about the business of loving, of trying to solve our problems, and make society a less violent place. Capital punishment is a red herring distracting us from the real work, and it perpetuates the very thing it proposes to stop."

Members of the Boston College community who served as presenters and facilitators at the conference included Graduate School of Social Work Dean Alberto Godenzi, Law School Associate Dean Michael Cassidy, Jesuit Community Rector Francis Herrmann, SJ, Prof. Phyllis Goldfarb (Law), Assoc. Prof. Alan Rogers (History) and part-time faculty member Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology).

Academic Development Center Director Suzanne Barrett, a co-organizer of the event, praised the University for its support of the conference, singling out the Jesuit Institute, Boston College Jesuit Community, Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and Undergraduate Government of Boston College, among others, for their generosity.


Return to July 26 menu

Return to Chronicle home page