By Catherine Mulroney
When David Byrne opted to attend a conference as an MDiv student a few years back, little did he know that the conference would lead not only to further studies but also to a fulfilling career.
The conference Byrne attended was on restorative justice, an approach that sees criminal offenders make amends with victims and the broader community. Fascinated by what he heard, Byrne sought to do his mandatory MDiv field placement – an extended period of service learning that stems from a theological question — in this area, landing a spot with Peterborough Community Chaplaincy, about 135 kilometres northeast of Toronto.
One of the programs under the Peterborough chaplaincy umbrella was a local chapter of Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), a national program designed to offer a network of support to sex offenders who have served their sentences, helping with weekly meetings to re-integrate them into community life while reducing the risk of recidivism.
That was 2009. Today, not only is Byrne the executive director of Peterborough Community Chaplaincy, he also serves as chair of CoSA Canada, the umbrella organization overseeing local chapters, while also continuing as a doctoral student at the Faculty of Theology, working on a thesis on the ethical, moral and spiritual questions surrounding chemical castration of sex offenders.
Under Byrne’s leadership, CoSA Canada received a $7.48-million grant from the federal government earlier this year under the National Crime Prevention Strategy to assist 14 CoSA sites across the country as they help offenders accept accountability and responsibility for their actions as they complete their sentences and return to the community.
Byrne credits mentor and thesis advisor Dr. Dennis O’Hara with helping him to find the confidence and self-awareness to discover his calling and recognize his skills.
“Dennis saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself,” he reflects. “Dennis provided the one-on-one guidance I needed to help me identify my strengths and interests.” Byrne also credits Dr. Marilyn Legge, of Emmanuel College, with being another great mentor for him.
That ability to offer guidance to another is a skill Byrne now employs in his workplace when he comes in contact with clients.
“We can help, but sex offenders need to be willing to work with us,” he explains.
Byrne’s workplace responsibilities are numerous, and include managing a staff of 15, and overseeing local residences, including a 10-bed palliative and long-term care home for released offenders. People who are incarcerated “age out” more rapidly, Byrne notes, due to a complex set of factors ranging from diet and exercise to issues of mental health.
One of the biggest challenges he faces are societal. For example, “revulsion stands in the way of treatment,“ he notes. Current research, he adds, indicates far more people than once thought have a propensity for pedophilic tendencies.
While he finds his work infinitely rewarding, one of the most important pastoral skills he learned while working on his MDiv was understanding the importance of leaving work behind, an especially important gift, as his wife works for a non-profit agency as well.
“When we get home, we’ll spend 10 to 15 minutes de-briefing, and then it’s all about family,” says the father of two.
Byrne finds many of the skills he developed while working on his MDiv to be applicable to his work life: he leads retreats and meetings, for example, and uses the research and writing skills he’s developed whenever he drafts a grant application. He’s also taught Additional Qualifications courses for teachers at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, and taught ethics at Fleming College in Peterborough, ON.