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“Ask a Priest: Must a victim’s parents forgive an unrepentant killer?”
Q: I need help to speak with friends who lost their 18-year-old son to a vicious murder. It has been 10 years, and they still hold a deep hate for the killer who is in jail but who has not been put on trial due to repeated delays in competency hearings. Jesus tells us to forgive those who have sinned against us before we can seek forgiveness. The killer in this case does not deny his committing the act but does not ask for forgiveness either. He appears to be mentally challenged but not as yet deemed incompetent. Regardless, must my friends forgive this man for what he did, or should they continue to press on down every avenue, at significant expense, to have him tried and punished under the law? What would Jesus do? -X.T.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I am sorry to hear about this tragic case. It is hard to imagine the heartache that the parents have suffered because of the death of their son.
I would point out a few principles that might help you. First, Jesus in the Our Father exhorts us to forgive others who trespass against us, just as God forgives us our trespasses against him. God shows us mercy and wants us to show mercy to others.
Second, the emotional wound that the killer inflicted on the parents is great. But the wound that the parents are inflicting on themselves might be even greater. That is, by not forgiving, they are not allowing themselves to let go of the tragedy. It is eating away at them. This is not something that the killer is doing to them – it is something that they are doing to themselves.
Jesus wants them to be at peace, and the best way to achieve that is for them to forgive, even if the killer is unrepentant. That doesn’t mean that the parents cannot pursue justice. It helps the public order if criminals are prosecuted and brought to justice. But that is a legal matter. What the parents need to do is try to let go of their anger in their hearts. They won’t help themselves by continuing to burn energy in anger. (For more readings about distinguishing between mere feelings and intentional decisions when it comes to forgiveness and anger, see here.)
Third, if the killer is mentally challenged, that might be all the more reason to forgive him. He might not be in control of his senses.
Another thing to consider is that the parents will do more for their son if they let go of the anger and pray for his soul. If they spend their energy trying to grow holy, their prayers might have more efficacy to help their son if he is waiting to get into heaven.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that any of this is easy for the parents. God alone knows the pain they endure. Yet it is also God alone who can give them the grace to let go of their anger. They need to pray for this grace of being able to forgive. You can pray for this grace too, to help them.
If it helps, ask them to meditate on Jesus’ words from the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And while it might be a lot to ask of the parents, perhaps you could help by praying for the conversion of the killer. Christ died for him too. By praying for the killer, you do an extra act of charity.
The parents probably need counseling too, if they haven’t received it.
I pray that peace comes to these parents and conversion to the killer. God bless.