Brendan McCauley and his wife Noelle were in their back garden when two young men came out of their house – one running out of the back door, the second crawling through a bathroom window. Brendan gave chase, and then returned to discover that cash, a laptop and two cameras had been stolen. Weeks later, one of the burglars was arrested. Brendan and Noelle agreed to meet him in a restorative justice conference in Hyde Bank Young Offenders Institute, Belfast.

On 6th July 2009, my husband Brendan had just finished a session of chemotherapy. The burglary happened the next day, so he wasn’t well when he ran after the two young fellows. We assumed they wouldn’t be caught but it turned out that one of these lads had committed various crimes and had left lots of fingerprints.

About three months after the intrusion, Joanne, a facilitator with the Youth Justice Agency, called us up to ask if we’d be interested in meeting the offender. We didn’t understand what Restorative Justice was, but Joanne explained that it was about meeting the offender so that he had the opportunity to make amends to us.  Later, we mentioned the scheme to our neighbour, a solicitor, and he was convinced it would never work. In fact, he was rather scathing about it. But we agreed to take part, and several weeks later a taxi came to take us to Hyde Bank Young Offender’s Institute.

The RJ conference took place in the prison. Joanne and a police woman were there for us, while the offender was accompanied by his mother and social worker. A number of his other victims were also present. A facilitator named Maggie read out a list of crimes that the young man had committed. There were 12 in two months.

The offender was then brought into the room. He was, as Brendan described, a ‘timid wee creature.’ He was also a drug addict, and it was clear that he had been used by the other two he was working with. After he spoke, Brendan said he actually felt sorry for him. He saw that he was just a cog in a big wheel. He wasn’t smart; he hadn’t even worn gloves to cover his tracks.

I, on the other hand, was angry with him because Brendan wasn’t well. I found myself shouting at one point, ‘Do you know what cancer is? Do you know the suffering he’s undergone?’ I also asked him, ‘Did you have a knife? A screwdriver?’ He said he hadn’t been carrying anything. I told him that if he’d so much as touched Brendan it could have killed him, and then he’d have been here for murder.

He didn’t say too much. Then his mother spoke. She was a thin, wee woman of about 40, and was clearly worn to a frazzle. She was married with another son who had followed in his brother’s footsteps, so her heart was broken. She started to cry. She wasn’t acting. The offender kept looking at his mother and finally he said, ‘What are you crying for?’

Everyone in the room thought, ‘What do you think she’s crying for?’ Then the other victims spoke. We heard how the offender had robbed a boxing club where he used to fight. The man who owned the club reminded him that he was quite a good boxer, that he had talent. The offender didn’t seem to know this about himself, and suddenly started to pay attention. He stopped playing it cool and started to listen to us as we told him, ‘Look at her. Look at your mother.’ At this point he wasn’t as cocky and selfish as he’d appeared at the beginning. It was as if he suddenly realised how much trouble he’d caused.

I wouldn’t say he looked as though he would never do it again, I think that’s too much to hope for. But all of us tried to encourage him to go back to boxing, to start again, and the club owner even said he would take him back. I told him we’d come to see him fight. I think I felt sorry for him because he was such a wee fellow.

Restorative Justice can definitely have a beneficial effect. It was a real education for us – to see the inside of a jail and what goes on there. What really struck me was that you tend to forget the crime when you’re talking to the individual. Also, if the criminal can see you are a real person, with real feelings and children and illnesses, rather than just a house or an address, it’s possible he might have more respect and empathy.  Our neighbour, the solicitor, has changed his mind because of our experience. He can see that it has worked.

We haven’t seen the young man since and he’s banned from our part of Belfast. But if I did see him again, I would like to support him; I would buy tickets to see him boxing. My grandfather was a boxing promoter and I would like to see this boy turn his life around.

If offenders engage with restorative justice at a young age, you might be able to nip it in the bud.

In the North of Ireland you can’t constantly think of the injustice of being stopped and searched for 37 years. You learn to forgive here. And we’ve come to forgive this lad, too.