At first glance, this question seems to be a no-brainer: Out of the Diocese of Orange’s 57 parishes and five Catholic Centers, which locale serves the greatest number of the county’s 1.3 million Catholics? That would be Christ Cathedral, right?
Wrong. “The largest collective Catholic population in O.C. is in our local adult jail system and juvenile facilities,” says Fred LaPuzza, director of the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry (RJ/DM). Incredibly, more Catholics are locked up in Orange County than the number of those who pray and serve at any other single locale in the Diocese.
Something’s obviously wrong with this picture. Caring for everyone in need – including those who are incarcerated – is a foundational value of the Church. Catholic social teaching emphasizes that anyone who is struggling should be restored to a better life – hence the term “restorative justice.”
“Restorative justice is a response to crime and violence that shifts the focus from punishment to responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration,” according to the California Catholic Conference of Bishops. “It holds offenders accountable even as it opens paths to healing, especially with victims. And it addresses the needs of everyone impacted by crime: victims, offenders, families, communities and those working in the criminal justice system.”
LaPuzza cites a number of references to restorative justice in the Scriptures: “Jesus says, ‘For I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matt. 25:36). And Hebrews 13:3 says, ‘We must remember those imprisoned as though we were imprisoned with them.’ Theme 1 of Catholic Social Teaching instructs us that human life is sacred and to care for all. This includes those in or out of jail. And Theme 6, Solidarity, reminds us that ‘We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.’ Even in places like jail.”
RJ/DM exists for this very purpose.
“Our office is involved in a multitude of things,” says LaPuzza, “from providing religious services inside the facilities, to reforming our state’s corrections system through legislative action, to providing resources for families of the incarcerated and referrals for community re-entry services.”
RJ/DM provides 140 scheduled religious services each week in three languages, along with other pastoral-care activities such as one-on-one visits and confessions. The ministry also helps to bring awareness about their work to local parishes and the community as a whole, and advocates for laws that are in line with Catholic Social Teaching and the Gospel.
In addition to adult and juvenile inmates, staffers and volunteers serve minors housed in protective custody. This includes all county adult jail and juvenile detention facilities, the Santa Ana City Jail, the Orangewood Children’s Home and parish communities. Inmates can partake in Bible studies, communion services, confessions, one-on-one pastoral services and more. Through RJ/DM, local parishes provide domestic violence support groups, at-risk and gang-related Youth Ministry Outreach, parenting classes, ministry presentations and all manner of family support services.
Since this problem doesn’t exist in a “Catholic bubble,” RJ/DM works with law enforcement and social service agencies, local universities and several nonprofits, including Saint Vincent de Paul Society’s Lights On program, which helps inmates released at night; Project Kinship, which provides adult re-entry certification classes; and many more.
Another nonprofit that partners with RJ/DM, Padres Unidos, provides classes for parents and families struggling to raise their children who are incarcerated, on probation or affiliated with gangs.
Padres Unidos engages parents in their children’s lives at the three most important levels: education, family life and prayer life, says founder Patricia Huerta. “It’s always about being there for the kids,” she says.
Huerta, a single mother of five who returned to school to earn a master’s of Social Work degree, is no stranger to family problems. “I lived with domestic violence and abuse,” she says. “We were homeless after my husband left the family, and we eventually started Padres Unidos at Sacred Heart Mission, in Anaheim.”
The nonprofit has been so successful, OC’s Director of Juvenile Hall petitioned the County Board of Supervisors to grant the Juvenile Site $750,000 for a three- to five-year contract.
RJ/DM and organizations like Padres Unidos share the same bottom line: helping everyone involved – inmates and victims alike, along with their families. And without much-needed assistance, many former inmates wind up back in jail.
LaPuzza notes those recently released often need help finding a job and a home. Many require mental health care and substance abuse and recovery education. “Pooling our resources into re-entry services reduces victimization, saves taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, improves overall public safety,” he says.
Those who work with the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry will never know how many people they’ve helped.
“I’ve had inmates share with me that their lives have been transformed through their encounter with our volunteers,” LaPuzza says. “The presence of our volunteers alone is a profound expression of God’s love for them. The experience restores their dignity and makes them feel valued and human again, which is profoundly healing.”