TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual assault and violence that may be triggering to survivors.
The last three popes have called for the abolition of the death penalty. In 2018, Pope Francis revised the official teaching of the Church to state, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (CCC 2267). Where Peter Is has discussed this development in the Church’s teaching on the death penalty many times (for example, here, here, and here). Unfortunately, many Catholics are resisting this teaching with such fervor that it leaves some of us asking why. Why is the moral acceptability of government executions so important for these Catholics? Why do some Catholics believe we must ensure that the government can execute people?
Today, we have the means to detain criminals and to prevent them from harming the rest of society. To be fair, many of the Catholics who reject the death penalty teaching are just echoing reactionary Catholic media figures who are using it as a way to cast doubt on Pope Francis’s authority. For example, the reactionary Catholic YouTuber Taylor Marshall and his former cohost Tim Gordon have suggested that the change in the official teaching on the death penalty is a “test” case that will inevitably lead to changes in doctrine in other areas, especially those related to human sexuality. Still other critics claim the death penalty is intrinsically good because it provides justice. Although the death penalty may have been seen as a just punishment in the past, Pope Francis is calling us to pursue justice in light of a deepened awareness of human dignity. We believe that God often works to bring a fuller sense of truth to his people through incremental steps. Recall that we see this in Scripture when Jesus explained that divorce was allowed in the time of Moses because of the hardness of the people’s hearts (Matt 19:8). Today the Magisterium is challenging us to deepen our understanding on the death penalty.
There are many approaches from which to discuss the death penalty. My thoughts on capital punishment are very personal, and come from my own experience as the victim of a violent crime that closely resembles the terrible acts committed by many of those who are sentenced to death.
Please be advised that what follows may be triggering to some readers.
I had a difficult time discerning how much detail I wanted to share about my experience, because I want the reader to understand that while my story is admittedly anecdotal, I have seen and endured the horror, ugliness, and evil of violent crime. We cannot discern better ways to respond to such evils if we whitewash or idealize them. Stories of forgiveness often tend to gloss over the reality of the evil or the difficult work in the journey toward physical, mental, and spiritual healing. I want to be clear that, thankfully, I have received years of counseling to help heal my very real wounds. Finally, I want to be extremely clear—every victim of violence has their own journey. Every survivor’s way of coping and path to healing is their own. This is my own story, and I have no intention of invalidating the difficulty of another person’s journey or how they sought healing. Every victim and survivor is different. We are unique individuals, and each should be respected and allowed to heal in their own way.
In the pre-dawn hours of August 21, 2006, I was awakened by loud knocking on my door. It was a neighbor, frantically begging for help for his girlfriend. I opened the door. He then tazed me and forced me into his girlfriend’s apartment. His girlfriend was nowhere to be found, of course. I became his prisoner. In the hours that followed, he repeatedly raped and assaulted me. He spared no brutality or degradation. He was armed with a knife, with which he repeatedly threatened to kill me. At one point, early on, I began to fight, hoping that I could flee out the door. But he strangled me to the point that I lost control of my muscles—so much that I involuntarily urinated on myself.
At that moment, I absolutely thought I was going to die. I experienced so many thoughts at once, including a vision of what my body would look like, found naked and beaten, and how my family would try to seek justice. Even then I had the thought that I did not want this man to be executed, although certainly I hoped he would be found and imprisoned so he could never do this to anyone else.
I also made peace with dying. With a prayer, I let go, closed my eyes, and stopped struggling. To my surprise, my attacker released his grip. I heard a voice in my heart say, don’t fight anymore. I spent the remaining hours in prayer as I was violated, raped, spat on, beaten, and forced to do horrifically degrading things. As the sun came up that morning, I heard this man debating with himself whether he should kill me and trying to decide what he would do with my body.
After four hours, I managed to manipulate him and was able to escape to my apartment, where I immediately called the police and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. My attacker was captured soon thereafter. He was eventually convicted on twelve charges, including kidnapping, aggravated assault, and multiple counts of rape and sodomy. He is currently serving a life sentence. I believe it is only by luck—or Providence—that I’m alive today. There’s no question in my mind that he would have killed his next victim.
A wonderful priest met me in the hospital, and he burst into tears when he saw me. We cried together, and he heard my confession and gave me the Anointing of the Sick. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I do remember telling him that I forgave the man who attacked me. And as much as I could at that point, I did. I truly wished him no ill will, but at the same time I understood with perfect clarity that holding him accountable was not having “ill will,” but was also his best chance at redemption. I also felt a strong responsibility to protect other women from becoming his victims.
I ultimately pursued both criminal and civil cases against the responsible parties to the fullest extent of the law. This is important to understand: accountability and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive—and there must be a healthy symbiotic relationship between the two.
The first ten years of my journey of forgiveness were marked by growing in my understanding that forgiveness entails willing the good of those who wound you. I found out some years later that a relative paid another prisoner to assault my attacker. This upset me, and I actually felt pity and concern for my attacker. This was not holding him accountable but causing the type of violence that can only breed more violence. I prayed that my attacker was would remain safe in prison—where undoubtedly he belonged—because he still had his human dignity. As Catholics we believe that our human dignity comes from the love of God, which is infinite and unconditional. It isn’t taken away, even when we make the ugliest, most devastating human choices.
Growing in my understanding that my attacker still had all of his dignity also allowed me to realize just how unconditionally I was loved. Simply put, I understood that even if I made horrible choices, God would not revoke his love for me, nor did God only love me when I made good choices. He simply loves me.
We are often so accustomed to conditional, finite, human love that it is hard to conceptualize God’s radical love. Some even question how God can possibly love us when he allows us to suffer. But God wants our will—and love—to be so free that he even allows us to make horrendous choices. I felt God there with me in my suffering that night; it was his suffering too. And in seeing this from the perspective of God’s love for my attacker, I can understand more deeply his love for me—that I have a truly free will. Even if I abuse my free will, I will always have my human dignity. This is unconditionally given to all people and is thanks solely to the love of God.
As the years passed, and my journey of healing and forgiveness continued, I began to think about another question. While I certainly had come to will the best for this man during those first few years, I was unwilling to think about the fact that the day will likely come when he is released from prison. At the time, I was terrified—even paralyzed—by the fear that if he got out, he would try to retaliate against me. I had set up mental boundaries for what “willing the good” for him looked like. But as I continued to heal I began to ask myself, if he did repent and change at some point, would I be willing to give up my fears and accept the possibility that he could have a chance to re-enter society?
His life sentence is actually being served as 27.5 years—is that an appropriate amount of time to hold him to account?
He will be in his fifties when he will be released. At that age, he will still have a chance to do something better with his life. Over the years, I have consciously let go my fears about his release in exchange for the hope that he will get a chance to repent and do better. That tradeoff has been liberating for me. Hope is easier to carry than fear.
I have come to understand that true justice is restorative to both the victim and to the offender. It is restorative to the entire Body of Christ, who are all affected by sin. We must seek justice that is not merely a punishment or an attempt to compensate for damages done. As Christians, we know Jesus brought perfect justice to the sin of Adam, and that his perfect justice is defined by its restorative—not punitive—nature.
When our souls have been purged of our pride enough to enter the unrestrained love of God—the kind that is truly found in heaven—our greatest joy will not be found in the things we’ve done, but in the love of God that transformed us and made us new. Recently, I had an image of my attacker in heaven, but in a higher place than me. I was looking up at him. His face had been transformed from the face I saw that night, twisted in evil, to one that was radiant with the love of God. It’s difficult to share this image because I don’t want it to be misconstrued as a denial of the evil acts he committed. But at the same time, the image is beautiful precisely because the grace of God is powerful, transforming, and unconditional. Those who have been transformed the most by God’s grace provide a witness to his love in a distinctly powerful way. Obviously, places in heaven are not for me to give out, but the joy of this image has been instrumental in my journey, and has taken my understanding of forgiveness and mercy to lengths I didn’t know were possible.
As I followed the news of the recent slew of federal executions, I did so from the perspective of a victim of the type of crime that many of these people committed. Many claim that these crimes merit death, but I am someone who—by the grace of God—was allowed to discover how forgiveness becomes more beautiful and more freeing as it becomes deeper and more complete. As a result, I can understand and fully agree with Pope Francis, who has consistently called the death penalty an “attack on human dignity.”
My personal journey to forgiving and loving my attacker allowed me to see this truth in a personal way. This undoubtedly heightened the pain I felt about these executions. Brandon Bernard, for example, was among those executed. He had clearly repented of his crime and had even become a voice for good while in prison. Where was the mercy in his death? Do we believe that people are defined by their actions so much that we won’t give room for God’s grace to work? I see my hope of my own attacker’s repentance in Bernard, and it was devastating to see the hope brought by a life of repentance needlessly cut short.
I also think of Lisa Montgomery, whose case raised legitimate concerns about her culpability and competence. Her crime was so horrific that many couldn’t see beyond the need for justice. And many simply settled for the cheapened justice of Montgomery’s execution, while she received no justice for the people and systems that consistently failed her. The relative who paid someone to assault my attacker must have felt a need for justice too, however misguided it was.
It is true that the horrors of violent crime cry out for justice. Still we must approach human justice with caution, and we must understand that human justice is not perfect. This is where the Church comes in, to guide us. I trust the Magisterium on the death penalty, and the Church’s position is affirmed by my own path to forgiveness. In God’s mysterious way of bringing good out of evil, suffering and pain can lead us to an opportunity to love more deeply. We have a choice: we can settle for imperfect, human attempts to seek justice, or we can seek justice in the way God offers it to us. God—through the Magisterium of the Church, in the teaching of Pope Francis on the death penalty—is offering us a deepened understanding of justice and human dignity, and I offer my witness of how sweet it is.
Image: Adobe Stock
Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.