One of the first questions Blase Cupich took from reporters when he arrived in Chicago as the city’s new top Catholic cleric regarded what the church could do to address the growing violence problem in the city.
Knowing that as the newcomer he still had much to learn about the city’s long and intricate history in that regard, he answered the question in general terms: Violence in any society stems from several factors including broken families, entrenched poverty, easy access to weapons and even systemic issues surrounding segregation, education and racism.
He also replied that he has always been convinced that if a community works together, it can achieve both short- and long-term goals to improve its situation.
And although he was speaking generally two years ago, Cupich stood before attendees of a Chicago Bar Association luncheon on Thursday to assure them that even after two years of research, visits to prisons and meetings with community members and leaders, the sentiments he relayed then remain true now.
“Not only do I want to assure you of my full investment in building partnerships with all of you in this room and beyond, I also believe there are some short- and long-term goals that we can pursue,” he said. “I offer this to begin a conversation, and I consider myself today … among friends who share these same aspirations in a city that prides itself on being a city that works.”
Cupich, who in November will be elevated to cardinal, said he dove into his studies of Chicago’s violence by arranging various dinners and meeting with media organizations and various businesses, law enforcement, labor and civic leaders to gain insight into the issue from their perspective.
It was through those meetings that Cupich said he learned of the many mentorship and service programs already established by people and organizations that have the “genuine desire to cross party lines and usual social divisions that define us in order to improve the safety and well-being in our city.”
That realization led Cupich to look within the Catholic Church to determine what role it can and already does play in helping to achieve that goal.
He said he hosted a summit of leaders within the archdiocese last June that taught him the church was making a large impact with its Catholic Charities organization — the largest social service program in Illinois — as well as its parishes that work in the neighborhoods to identify “hotspot neighborhoods” and resources for youth and young adults who are “ready to walk away from environments that could lead to violence.”
He also highlighted the work taking place within its school systems
“The greatest anti-poverty program and anti-violence program that I see taking place is in our schools, where we educate 75,000 children in Chicago and 150,000 children in Illinois,” Cupich said.
“We want to be able to provide them with an education, but we also know that our presence in very troubled areas is a means of establishing stability in these neighborhoods. Those who come to our schools are prepared not just for college but for life, motivating them to take responsibility for their lives and giving them the knowledge and opportunity, the values they’ll need to succeed.”
But Cupich didn’t list the Catholic Church’s accomplishments to toot its own horn. Instead, he said, he offered them as signs of hope that preventing violence is possible when different community groups work together to achieve that common goal.
“We do all of these things because we have the same aspirations for a safe and productive society as all of the people here in this room,” he said.
Retired Cook County judge Sheila M. Murphy, who co-chairs the CBA’s interfaith committee and serves as the co-director of The John Marshall Law School’s restorative justice project, said the concept of working together was Cupich’s most important sentiment relayed during the luncheon.
She said that’s a concept that touches directly on restorative justice and can be taught to college students, who can then conduct outreach in Chicago’s more dangerous neighborhoods, to help “work with the children to change the way they think, to change their attitude, to change who they want to be, who they are now.”
“If we have cooperation like that among the legal community, just imagine what we can do,” Murphy said.
While the Catholic Church has made a sizeable impact on stemming city violence, more can be done, Cupich said.
He said he came away from last year’s summit with a list of priorities that require both attention and advocacy. That list, he said, includes greater investments in mentoring programs and mental health assessments for community members who suffer from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I believe that many of the young people today who are charged with violent crimes have been in those environments that have left them damaged, in fact suffering from (PTSD),” he said. “We need to do things that are preventative so that they do not fall into the cycle of violence.”
The archbishop also advocated for restorative justice programs like the one Cook County Circuit Court is set to debut in 2017 “so that perhaps at the neighborhood level we will be able to provide resource hubs so that they can have the pattern of violence broken on the local level.”
Chief Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans said he was “extremely pleased” to hear Cupich recognize the court’s effort in establishing the new community court program.
“He was really intrigued by it and he seemed to realize that this is the first place in the country that this is going to be tried,” Evans said. “I was very impressed by him and his approach and his embrace of new ideas. He seems to be open and willing to go down that path with us hand-in-hand.”
Cupich also emphasized the need for the community to foster better relationships and “recapture the art of friendship” — especially during a time when political discourse is toxic, conversation and politeness is seen as weakness and “relationships, at best, are transactional exercises in mutual back-scratching.”
“We need to take a serious look at the kind of example we are giving to young people in today’s society – often a crude, harsh and disingenuous public discourse,” he said.
His comments in that regard applied directly to the court’s restorative justice initiative because a primary goal in such an approach to justice is to give someone who commits a crime the opportunity to learn the impact that perpetrator’s crime has made on his or her surrounding community and then be welcomed back to the community “as a friend.”
Cupich’s relationship sentiments were also appropriate for the issue of access to justice that CBA President Daniel M. Kotin has focused on since his installation.
“What I liked about his thoughts on increasing the relationships is that it addresses the violence problem on the front end rather than on the back end, where we’re increasing police presence or strengthening the criminal justice department,” Kotin said.
Kotin said among all that was shared during Thursday’s luncheon, he hopes attendees learned that they can play a role in diminishing and preventing city violence.
“Even though we were a room full of practicing lawyers who are fully aware of the violence epidemic that’s plaguing our city, I hope that the archbishop’s words encourage us to realize that instead listening to this and reading about it, we can actually get involved and try to stop.”