In October 2005 Shannon Moroney married Jason Staples having been in a loving and committed relationship for three years. One month later, Jason attacked and brutally violated two female strangers at his workplace and hours later brought them to the home he shared with Shannon. On arrest, he disclosed that he had also committed acts of voyeurism on Shannon and others, videotaping them in the bathroom. Following a 2 ½ year court process, he was declared a Dangerous Offender and sentenced to an indeterminate period of incarceration (Canada’s highest sentence).
On the morning of our one-month wedding anniversary, I woke up in a Toronto hotel room where I was attending a conference for work. I lay in bed for a few minutes with my hands on my abdomen, believing that I might be pregnant and hoping with all my heart that I was right. Jason and I wanted to have a family as soon as possible, and we had planned to take a test when I got home later that day.
An hour later, those dreams were shattered. A police officer came to the door of my hotel room and told me Jason had been arrested the night before, charged with several crimes: sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, assault with a weapon, choking, threatening death, and kidnapping. I was in utter shock and disbelief. For a split second, I thought, No! There must be some mistake! Then the officer told me Jason had called the police himself, so I knew there was no mistake.
My heart fell further as my thoughts jumped to what I had known about Jason’s past since his disclosure on our first date: that he was on parole with a life sentence. He had committed a murder seventeen years earlier, just after his eighteenth birthday. He served ten years in a federal prison and I met him five years after that, early in 2003. At that time he had been working as the coordinator and chef of a restaurant for low-income patrons for several years, and he was loved and respected by staff, clients and volunteers alike. I was one of those volunteers. When Jason and I began to form a romantic relationship, we were fully supported by our families and friends as well as Corrections officials. Concern that Jason might re-offend was never raised. The focus was on the future, and with his talents, support and loving relationships, Jason had everything going for him. Now there was devastating proof that something was still very wrong with him.
The shock was so immense that my body began to bleed—if I had been pregnant, I wasn’t anymore. I felt sick with the churning realization of a reality filled with love and hope being completely destroyed by senseless, horrific violence. I felt completely helpless and an utter inability to change what had happened. Questions about the victims began to flood my mind: Who were they? Were they alright?
Picturing Jason, all I could think was, What happened to you, Jason? My heart could not yet hold any anger because it was a broken vessel. Three days later, I went to the jail where Jason was being held in solitary confinement. The second we saw each other through the thick glass of the visiting room, we both began crying. Jason kept repeating, as he hung his head in what looked to me like misery and bewilderment, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry….” Hearing this, I didn’t feel a need to punish him; the courts and his own shame would take care of that. What I saw before me was a human being, and I knew that in a different life-course, it could have been me on the other side of the glass. At the time, the words “I forgive you” did not come to my mind. Instead, I could only say, “I love you, I still love you”.
What I learned over the following months and years, is that forgiveness is an on-going process kept alive by continuous choice. After Jason’s crimes, I was frequently chosen as the target of accusations, judgment and blame. I even lost my job. Police victims’ services turned me away. Upon learning that I had visited Jason, some people demanded to know what was wrong with me. This was nothing short of devastating and injurious to my professional and personal identity. Without remorse or apology from those who accused me, I struggled to find the peace offered by forgiveness and continued to face the harmful effects of losing so many hopes and dreams to crime and violence. I often felt anger, but I drew the line at resentment. It is a lingering, toxic emotion. Instead, I chose to put my energy into the creation of new dreams.
I was determined not to let violence and betrayal shape the rest of my life, not to lose my sense of compassion, nor my abilities to love and trust. To allow those losses would have been like choosing a life sentence for myself; like putting myself in a prison. So I began to look for opportunities to share my story through speaking and creating visual art, and this helped me to overcome the voicelessness I felt as a victim and as the family member of an offender. Soon, I felt a shift take place: instead of telling my story to help myself, I was telling it with the hope of helping others. I found that when I opened up and said, “this is what happened to me,” then others would do the same. It was then I saw that I was no longer alone. While critics sometimes say “forgiveness is weak” or “forgiveness means letting someone off the hook”, I know that forgiveness is about strength and it is about letting ourselves off the hook by releasing a negative bond to the violence we so despise…and opening up possibilities for a positive future.