The accidental prison chaplain

Tracey Edstein spoke to Fr Peter Carroll msc, Chaplain to the Corrective Services and Chair of the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council which advises the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life.

The word ‘accidentally’ occurs often in Peter Carroll’s conversation. He has a warmly disarming manner and it’s easy to see why prison ministry suits him, although he says it happened without design – like his priestly vocation as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart.

Sydney’s Carroll family gave birth to many priestly and religious vocations so the idea was not foreign to Peter, but he did work in a bank for some years post-school. He says, “I haven’t had a ‘zap moment’ yet – I’m waiting for it!” but hearing a visiting MSC priest speak about vocations sparked something. “I went to a weekend and that was it.” He was ordained in 1981 after formation at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne.

Peter describes himself as “practical rather than a student – my life has been quite pastoral”. Having worked in parishes, on school retreat teams and in ministry to Aboriginal communities, he says, “I didn’t choose prison ministry ‒ it kind of chose me… I had worked voluntarily in prisons after an Aboriginal mother asked me to visit her daughter in prison. That was an introduction to the ministry, so when Bishop David Cremin asked me to take it on officially, I agreed.”

As a chaplain to several prisons, Peter visits those who ask to see a priest, or those whom he’s asked to visit, but is also generally available – to be a listening ear, a source of practical support and a sacramental minister. He describes his ministry as “wandering with intent”!

While he doesn’t read individuals’ sentencing remarks – which determine how prisoners are assessed and to which prison they are sent ‒ Peter knows that many of those he meets have been convicted of sexual offences. “They’re telling me their story – it’s so important for them to be listened to without being judged. In prison environment they’re not telling their story but talking about their offence.” In fact, programs for sexual offenders have the highest effectiveness in reducing recidivism.

Peter believes strongly in restorative practice. “Prisoners with a long sentence don’t just ‘do their time’. They are required to complete a program as they approach release, but is there nothing that can be done earlier to assist rehabilitation? The authorities prefer that once a prisoner’s completed a program, he or she doesn’t return to the prison environment where – as is often said – they might well learn to be a better criminal.” 

Peter can tell story after story. One concerns a young man in prison because he breached an AVO. His explanation? “I just don’t push the pause button.” Peter suggested that meditation would help; “Yes, I’ve been told that,” was the response. “Well, if you start now it will help you when you’re released.”

 

One of Peter’s regular tasks is accompanying prisoners on day leave as release approaches. The period immediately after release is critical, as many ex-prisoners are no longer in touch with family and former associates and in fact their closest connections may well be ‘inside’. Also, the world has changed while they’ve been living the regulated life of a gaol – prisoners don’t have mobile phones, Opal cards, email addresses… Finding accommodation is vital and Peter has networks to assist with this need. Cana Communities, which have a reputation for ‘loving people back into life’, are just one way of meeting this need. It's about relating, belonging, connecting, providing opportunities.

The gospels speak of care for those on the margins and Pope Francis echoes this, in word and deed. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19). A recently released man or woman may well be ‘free’, but poor, blind to opportunity and promise, and oppressed.

Each year on Holy Thursday Pope Francis visits inmates of a prison and washes their feet. He preaches the gospel of service on his knees, with basin, water and towel. As a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, Peter Carroll’s mission is “To be on earth the heart of God”. He maintains parish connections and presides regularly at the ‘Call to mercy’ Mass at Erskineville which is, like any Mass, open to all who would come but is Peter’s answer to prisoners or former prisoners who ask, ‘Where do you say Mass?’

He believes strongly that parishes have a part to play in welcoming those who have served their sentences and wish to contribute again to society. He says, “The Jesuit Social Services report, ‘Dropping off the edge’ (2015) says that we know the postcodes, the villages from where people will go to prison – so what are we doing with that knowledge? Can Catholic parishes somehow engage on this level?”

I ask, ‘Are there enough prison chaplains?’ and Peter’s response is, “There is a chaplain in every gaol. I think the issue is community support rather than the number of chaplains. People leaving prison need relationships ‒ the church does relationships. How open is our church to building bridges not walls?”

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Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the former editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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