Couple speaks of experience with justice system

By Blake Sittler

CHATEAU MONT-SAINTE-ANNE, Que. — John and Pat Cooney describe themselves as an average Canadian couple. They married in 1970 and have four children. Pat was a teacher for over 20 years and was a eucharistic minister at their church in Markham, Ont. John worked at a bank and sang in the choir. Together they ministered with Worldwide Marriage Encounter.

One of their sons, Michael, was in car sales but was making a move into finances and to that end had registered for further education. The family planned to gather over Thai food to celebrate school and his new engagement.

The reason they had been asked to speak at A Passion for Compassion: A Dialogue of the Catholic Family on Restorative Justice Ministry in Canada conference in Quebec Sept. 19-21 was not their simple Catholic life or their marriage. The experience they were sharing, entitled, “I was thirsty and you gave me water,” began the night after the engagement party, when they got a call from a lawyer in Toronto who said that Mike had been arrested.

“I was in shock,” said John. “He had been arrested at school.”

“We called and called but couldn’t reach him,” he continued. “The first time we saw him was that Saturday morning at his arraignment.”

John and Pat spoke of how helpless they felt as their son sat in front of the judge. His lawyer did not show up. When the charges were read, including break and enter to commit theft under $5,000 and possession of a stun gun, they didn’t understand the charges — this didn’t sound like their son at all. Bail was set, but could not be posted because it was Saturday and the administrative offices were not open.

“This was our first step into ‘the system,’ ” shared Pat.

The Cooneys arranged to visit their son in the maximum security detention centre. They were buzzed in through several heavy, steel doors and walked through a metal detector. They were guided into a visiting room and saw their son, unshaven and weary eyed.

“We tried to figure out how this all happened,” Pat said, “but in the end, we had to leave our precious son there.”

The Cooneys spoke candidly about how their average Canadian family struggled with their son’s arrest. They wrestled immediately with debt they incurred defending their son. The bail hearing alone cost $15,000.

They also found out that their home phone had been tapped by the police.

“We aren’t the mafia or a biker gang,” stated John. “We felt absolutely violated.”

“We sat and listened to our son being cross-examined for two and a half hours, having his words twisted,” John said. “We naively thought that people were ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but what we experienced was ‘innocent until arrested and then presumed guilty.’ ”

Early in the trial, the Cooneys had to take a second mortgage out for the $100,000 that they now owed to lawyers and they were informed that over the next two years, if the trial continued, that price could easily double.

Their son pled guilty and served his time. He then went back to school and graduated with honours, but to date has not been able to get a job in his field owing to his criminal record.

“This has totally changed my perception of the world, the police, the legal system,” admitted John. “I am now paranoid about phones and personal privacy. I began to worry I was being followed.”

Pat suffered as well.

“I mourned for my son’s lost hopes and dreams. It was like he was dying and just keeps dying,” she said.

“I found it hard to enjoy life when he was in prison, and now that he’s out, I feel guilty when I’m enjoying life because I know he is struggling,” she shared. “These men have served their debt to society but they are not supported when they try to move on.”

At their lowest moment, when they felt they were in the middle of a desert of hopelessness and at a total loss, they were approached by a group called Friends of Dismas. The members of this support team rallied around the Cooneys and also helped them to raise $26,000 to help pay off some of their debt.

Since their family’s trial, and through the guidance of Friends of Dismas, the Cooney’s have begun to walk with a young man who is out of prison and trying to get on his feet again.

The Cooney’s spoke to some 95 prison chaplains from across Canada at the restorative justice conference held north of Quebec City. They were sharing their experiences as volunteers of the Friends of Dismas. The goal of Friends of Dismas is to “build a community of hope by enabling people of faith to get involved in creative and healing activities to persons touched by crime.”

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