National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Juvenile Justice
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

A ministry of presence

Young people in detention need someone to care

Los Angeles

The 12-year-old boy stood at the altar in the prison chapel during the Mass. Sorrowfully, though steadily, he talked about how he had screwed up and what it had done to his mom. He had been incarcerated for two weeks. This was Sunday. His mom would come to visit him.

Not everyone gives this sort of testimony so evenly. A few weeks earlier 14-year-old Dion broke down and cried as he talked. Because his mother never comes.

Week in, week out, Jesuit Frs. Mike Kennedy and Greg Boyle generally alternate as celebrants at the 10 a.m. Mass at downtown Los Angeles Juvenile Hall. Kennedy is pastor of Dolores Mission, a beacon of hope and refuge in tough Boyle Heights. Boyle is founder of Homeboy Industries, a “jobs for the future” program for gang members, at-risk youths and those recently released from detention.

In the chapel, this Sunday was little different. Kennedy was saying Mass.

In the center bank of pews in this prison chapel were three dozen or more young men -- boys often with men’s street-hardened experiences behind them. To the left side, pews of young women, girls whose experiences -- with broken families, sexual abuse or violence, lousy schools, poverty and overcrowding -- could match those of the boys.

There were also visitors. In the right bank of pews were some two dozen parishioners from Holy Family, an upper middle-class parish twinned with Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

The Mass and the readings all whirled around the concept of liberating prisoners. Kennedy wove his words to illustrate to the young people how being in prison also makes captives of their families, especially their moms and dads.

In all, four young men stood at the foot of the altar. Two of the four spoke of absent moms. Moms who left. One mom came back after seven years -- appearing suddenly in Juvenile Hall to see her son. He said, “I didn’t know what to say to her.” Mother and son talked. She told him how tough her life had been, and how she understood his. The young man said to the church, “I have forgiven her.”

Much in evidence before and after the Mass was Javier Stauring, who codirects the Los Angeles archdiocese’s detention ministry. Stauring gives testimony of a different sort. He’s suing the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department for banning him from adult jails where juveniles were being held.

“We’ve got to get the juveniles out of Men’s Central Jail,” he told NCR. Because Stauring had publicly protested the conditions under which juveniles were held in Men’s Central the sheriff pulled his adult jail ministry privileges.

The revocation of privileges is a serious issue for Stauring. He specializes in juvenile ministry; Fr. George Horan supervises the adult ministry. Stauring is committed to a radical transformation of the juvenile justice system.

However, the local Catholic church’s ministry itself is suffering. In a wave of continuing staff and ministry cuts instituted by Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2002, the detention ministry budget was halved. Where 24 chaplains once served 7,000 incarcerated adults and 3,000 youths, 12 had to carry the load. Gradually, working through parishes, the Catholic prison ministry has gained sufficient support to reinstate nine more chaplains.

Detention ministry, at its most basic, said Stauring, is not about turning people’s lives around. “More than anything else it’s about accompanying them in difficult times,” he said. “It’s a ministry of presence. We believe in being present and showing that there are folks interested in them, who care about them and are not judging them or looking at them as something that’s broken that needs to be fixed. We’re there because we want to be an example of a loving God, a God of unconditional love, a God that understands and forgives.

“It’s by creating that feeling,” he said, “youth can start feeling valued, feel that there is something good in them. That’s what will bring on transformation.”

Stauring wants the system to transform. And while he may have trouble with the sheriff, the detention minister makes the outside world take notice. Last year he was one of three to receive Human Rights Watch’s top award as a defender of human rights. (Also honored: Egypt’s Dr. Aida Seif El-Dawla, for her work combating torture and promoting women’s rights; and Taiwan Gongloe, for defending the rule of law and human rights during Liberia’s civil war.)

The downtown Los Angeles Juvenile Hall has about 500 juvenile inmates, most awaiting trial dates. They range in age from 8 to 17. Once they turn 18 they’re adults. About 125 are female. Usually 20 to 30 of those being held are under 14, including a cluster of 8- and 9-year-olds.

In chapel on Sundays, the juveniles enter and leave with arms behind their backs, their normal posture when moving in groups. The entire doorway is an arch of painted sheltering hands with the words “Comfort,” “Hope” and “Amanacer,” Spanish for “an awakening,” the possibility of a new dawn. The majority of the young people receive the Eucharist. They do the readings. The choir comes from Dolores Mission.

Not everyone in the chapel is Catholic. Stauring explained that attendance at Sunday church services is ethnicity based. Latinos, even those who are not Catholic but want to attend church, will go to the Catholic Mass because that’s where the Latinos go. Black Catholics won’t come. They’ll go to the Protestant service with the other black kids.

Prayer is one outlet for many of “these kids who are all under great stress,” said Stauring. Stress not only for their crimes, but for their futures. “They’re wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ They’re worried about their families back home. Some of them have kids of their own they are worrying about.”

Stauring is part-time with the diocese, part-time with an interfaith coalition, Faith Communities for Families and Children, working on advocacy issues. He meets with the county board of supervisors staff, contacts state legislators, appears in court on behalf of minors who otherwise would be in court alone. Often minors’ families aren’t there for them. So they drift into the streets. Into gangs. Into trouble.

The education system isn’t there for them. Nor is the nation’s government as it has shifted away from the housing, health and jobs programs essential to improving potential for America’s underclass.

These root causes leave millions of families and millions of young people facing a future where the only guaranteed sound is the prison door clanging shut.

For many like Holy Family parishioner Jane Argento and her husband, Phillip, a Superior Court judge, the establishment of a parish detention ministry group brings the story full circle. For the Argentos the process began the evening they attended a birthday dinner for fellow parishioner David Evans. Evans is a criminal defense attorney who has taught death penalty law at Loyola University Law School and is on the Death Penalty Focus board.

Guests that night included Jesuits Kennedy and Boyle; juvenile issues were a table topic. Within days, Presentation Sr. Janet Harris, a justice advocate, and Holy Family community service director Allis Druffel were part of the action. The phones started ringing to invite speakers for a four-part series, “Juvenile Justice: Challenges for the Second Century.” The California juvenile system had just celebrated its centenary.

Msgr. Clement Connolly, pastor, told the opening session the series was “one more sign that we have grown a lot around Holy Family in recent years, grown in numbers and in spirit. For many years we were inward looking. But through the movement of the Holy Spirit in the emerging strengths of the lay leadership, Holy Family is looking more outward.”

Later in the month, Druffel added, “It’s difficult to garner support for social concerns ministries” but this one attracted “parish-wide support.” Juvenile justice issues permeate the concerns of the entire community, she said.

During an early NCR interview, juvenile justice advocate Harris commented, “God gave me an opportunity.”

The same appears to be true for the parish.

The first installment of this two-part series was the cover story for the April 23 issue.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

People who know speak out

In 1989 the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty for offenses committed by 16- to 17-year-olds. Our Congress has not yet ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children. It basically bars the death penalty for anyone who is a minor. Let me list the company we’re in of other countries that have not ratified the convention: Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
     -- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Brandolino

We know that about 40 percent of all state prisoners return to the Los Angeles area upon their release, and about 80 percent of them go back to prison. An indication there’s not much going on in state prisons other than warehousing.
     -- Councilman Bernard Parks, former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department

I try every month to go to the men’s jail in Orange County, downtown Santa Ana. It’s something I’ve done for the majority of my priesthood. Celebrating the Eucharist there has always been very sobering for me. I don’t necessarily like the experience. How do I preach the Gospel in a way that has some meaning? With this audience you can’t fake it. The very difficult issues of crime and punishment, the church’s teaching on forgiveness and mercy, [yet for the] church it is important for us to stand with victims, too, and their families, and the loneliness and isolation they feel.
     -- Bishop Jaime Soto, auxiliary of Orange, Calif.

I come from a large Irish Catholic family. I have a cousin for virtually every crime. I mean my family can call me in the middle of the night.
It may seem strange but I still communicate with a fair number of people that I have sentenced to prison. We write sometimes. One guy I sentenced to 25 years is getting out next month. I wrote a note to Pat and said I didn’t know whether he was actually guilty. But he had admitted it.
     -- Pasadena Juvenile Court Judge Candace Beason

I thought I was going to have to listen to an hour of love poems about AK-47s. We walk into this [Juvenile Hall] room and there were four boys and Duane [Los Angeles Times writer Duane Noriyuki] and me in a room so small when we sat down our knees were practically touching. What do you do with your eyes? I decided I will look at their hands. They just stuck it out with their hands shaking. Each one had brought in a sheet of notebook paper on which he’d written a poem or essay. I remembered instantly what I felt like when I was 17. If I’d been invited to read something I’d written aloud to a professional writer, I would be terrified. When I realized they were in that sense still kids, my own fear was replaced -- you want to do something to relieve that distress.
     -- Mark Salzman, author and Juvenile Hall writing workshop teacher

It’s my privilege to know people like Hector, a 17-year-old trying to get back into school, member of a gang trying to pull back, a real earnest kid. He came up to me and trying to make conversation said, “You know, gee, I ran into this man the other day who was handed one of your talks.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. He thought your talk was monotonous.”
I said, “Wow, he did?” Hector said, “Well actually, no. That didn’t happen, but I need practice using bigger words, you know.” So I asked him if he could practice on someone else.
     -- Jesuit Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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