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  • 5 Questions with...Michael Kelliher, S.J.

    September 4, 2008

    Perhaps the only Jesuit (or priest, for that matter) to complete a doctorate in criminal justice, Michael Kelliher, S.J., grew up on Capitol Hill and attended St. Joseph grade school, where he says he received an “early indoctrination by the nuns in the Jesuit way of doing things.” Fr. Kelliher went on to Seattle Prep and then Seattle U for a year before deciding to enter the Jesuits. After he was ordained, he found himself increasingly interested in criminal justice. He earned his Ph.D. and returned to SU in 1972, right around the time the university’s criminal justice department was beginning. He would later serve as department chair for a dozen years. Wanting to add a specialty to his criminal justice expertise, Kelliher received training in polygraph testing in the late 1970s and went on to open his own polygraph testing business in downtown Seattle, charging only what he needed to pay the rent. Kelliher has served on two state-wide commissions, having been appointed by two governors. These days a significant portion of his teaching and research is directed to the study of restorative justice.

    B&M: So how exactly does a Jesuit priest get into the field of criminal justice?

    Fr. Kelliher: While I was doing theology at Alma College in Los Gatos (Calif.), I was working with young people who were in recovery for substance abuse. I was kind of adopted by the group just to be present to them. Many of the kids had been in trouble with the Department of Youth Services in California. The counselors didn’t want me to get too involved in a counseling role—they just wanted me to say some prayers. I was a little put off by that because the kids seemed to be receptive to me, and I thought to myself that I could probably do the counselors’ jobs without too much training. But I knew that if I was going to get into juvenile work, I would need some sort of pedigree. I did my graduate work at UC-Berkeley with the idea that I would work with youth groups. But it never happened. I was recruited by several schools and, after talking with my provincial, it was decided I would come to SU.

    What are the most common ways that people try to cheat on a polygraph test, and do you have a particular test that you remember most?

    Some of the more popular counter measures, as they’re called, are to put a tack in your shoe or to bite down on the tooth of a comb. But people never get the timing right and you see this dramatic spike that has nothing to do with the question, so it’s pretty obvious what they’re doing. The most memorable polygraph test I conducted was for a man who was accused of assaulting his infant son. Everybody was ready to crucify this poor guy, but after I looked at his charts it was clear to me that he didn’t do it. I’ve never seen a reaction like that—he and his public defender both had grins from ear to ear when charges were dropped.

    You’ve traveled the world to examine the systems of criminal justice that some other countries have. What have you taken away from those visits?

    In the U.S. we have a system of retributive justice where we ask what law was broken, who broke it and how do we punish him or her. Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks if we can bring people together in a negotiated process that results in a win-win for the perpetrator and the victim. This form of justice can be seen in countries like New Zealand, South Africa and Northern Ireland. What impressed me most in Ireland was that the police were asking to be trained in restorative justice. A private company did a survey for the police in Belfast, which found that people who go through a restorative justice program are much less likely to be repeat offenders.

    If you had the power to change the United States’ criminal justice system, what would you do?

    People in other countries are amazed at how punitive the U.S. is. We’re still into nab ’em, catch ’em and spank ’em. We’re one of just a few industrialized nations that haven’t dropped the death penalty. People come out of our prisons stigmatized and their families are too. What I’d like to see is some way to really rehabilitate people so that they don’t come out of prison more angry than when they went in. No matter what course I teach, I tell my students that if you’re going to join this system to be careful because you’ve got a lot of power. It’s not just you. You’ve got a whole army behind you. I tell them that the greatest gift is not that they know something about the criminal justice system but that they always keep that notion of justice before them and act with justice.

    What do you do in your spare time?

    I play golf once in a while. (When pressed to identify some of the best golfing Jesuits he occasionally plays with, Fr. Kelliher names David Leigh, S.J., and Dave Anderson, S.J.) I have several hobbies. I work on miniature trains (N-scale). I used to do radio control model airplanes when we lived in Loyola, but there’s not as much room to set up and build in Arrupe. I’d fly the planes in Marymoor Park.

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