REMARKS OF THE HONORABLE ALBERTO R. GONZALES
NATIONAL CRIME VICTIMS’ RIGHTS WEEK
FRIDAY, APRIL 8, 2005
Thank you, Tracy for that introduction.
It’s an honor to be with you on this 25th commemoration of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Today we celebrate the extraordinary progress we’ve made together in giving victims a voice in our system of law.
I’d like to take a moment to recognize my wife, Rebecca. Becky joins me here today because she cares deeply about the issues facing crime victims. She spent three-and-a half years in the Texas Attorney General’s Office supporting sexual assault programs across the state. She understands that our Nation’s highest ideals of compassion and justice demand that we protect the welfare of all victims.
She has seen that we have journeyed far since President Ronald Reagan declared the first National Crime Victims’ Rights Week more than two decades ago. Of course, President Reagan was an appropriate champion of this important issue, because he could relate - he himself a former victim. The steel of an assassin’s bullet only hardened his resolve to make victims of violent crime heard throughout our system of justice.
Since President Reagan first brought victims’ rights to the fore of our national discussion, Americans have listened with concern to the stories of victims of crime. And we have responded with compassion and with action.
But we have still more work to do. That is why I named victims’ rights as one of my top priorities in my first speech at the Department of Justice.
Last night, we heard one such story-the story of Trisha Meili’s exceptional courage. After the brutal attack on her in Central Park, she now offers us all words of hope. Her perseverance after such a brutal crime is a beacon to all those who have been victimized. Trisha, you inspire us as few can. Thank you for being with us today.
Trisha’s words and actions remind me of the example set by yet another victim of violent crime. The world has paused today to celebrate the life - and resilience - of Pope John Paul II.
Early this morning, millions of people - from presidents to pilgrims - packed into Saint Peter’s Square and huddled around video screens throughout Rome to watch the Pope’s funeral. And hundreds of millions more watched in their living rooms from Krakow to Chicago and everywhere in between.
Mourners stood silent before the Pope’s example of suffering. Like so many victims of crime, deep suffering could not smother his will to make a difference in the world. When he took multiple bullets - and again when Parkinson’s disease firmed its grip on his body - The Pope’s perseverance taught us that suffering is a gift from God.
Suffering takes many forms and is indiscriminate as to whom it affects. Victims of crimes and the families and friends of lost or injured loved ones suffer in ways that are unimaginable. It may be hard for those that suffer to ever consider such pain as a gift. But with time, the support of others, and God’s grace, the experience can be a source of growth and motivation. And that gift should be shared with others. Those who have suffered have an opportunity to help others with their own suffering, to lift up those without enough strength, to counsel those who have yet to pass through their own grief.
The lessons of suffering can make a difference in the lives of others. The Pope affected billions of people. Each of us can only hope to touch a few, or a few hundred. But the example of the Pope’s suffering gives us the chance to leave our mark on the world and touch the lives of others…as he has done and as heroes such as Trisha have done as well.
There are many heroes in the fight for victims’ rights; and I want to recognize three people who represent our Nation’s first efforts to help create a justice system that supports victims of crime:
Lois, Terry, and Doris all served on President Reagan’s 1981 Task Force on Victims of Crime. It is largely because of their efforts that this week can serve a greater purpose than merely a time to reflect on victims of crime: we can celebrate their mark on the world.
The Task Force final report contained 68 specific recommendations for improving the way crime victims are treated. The report boldly declared that, “Somewhere along the way, the system began . . . treating the victim with institutionalized disinterest.” That report focused on this serious problem and put us on the road to concrete solutions.
Over the last 25 years, thanks to President Reagan, the Task Force, and the victims’ rights movement, we have focused on ending that “institutionalized disinterest.” Thank you, Judge Haight, Terry Russell and Doris Dolan for your service to victims and for being with us today.
As President Bush often says, the power of America is in her people. We are a compassionate people. And wherever there is human suffering, there is also the humanity of personal solace. Many who apply the salves of comfort and compassion to victims of crime are those who share a common understanding of suffering.
Our nation relies as much on them - people who have experienced suffering and chosen to embrace that of others - as it does on programs or policies that ensure the rights of those victims.
We do have an institutional responsibility to the victims of violent crimes. But that comes after our individual responsibility to share in the human experience of suffering with our fellow men and women.
President Reagan showed a profound empathy on both levels - as an individual and as the Consoler-in-Chief. We saw it as he recovered in a hospital bed. We saw it when he eulogized the Challenger astronauts on live television. We saw it in his soft smile.
But he also put the nation he loved on the right track to deal compassionately with victims on an institutional basis.
In a White House ceremony to commemorate Crime Victims Week in 1984, he lauded the assembled victims for “turning [their] anguish into constructive action - by establishing programs to aid [their] fellow citizens who have suffered as [they had] at the hands of criminals.”
Today, President Reagan’s legacy and spirit extend to just about every sector of victim rights and victim services.
You can see his legacy in the thousands of local victim assistance programs sustained by legislation that he fostered. You can see it in the compassion of the domestic-violence shelter that cares for an abused wife and her children. And you can see his legacy at the district attorney’s victim-assistance units, where prosecutors and law enforcement can counsel victims of stalking.
Since President Reagan spoke so eloquently and acted so decisively on behalf of crime victims, we have seen a network of programs arise to provide financial help to victims. For rape survivors, it comes in the form of medical attention. For assault victims, it can be the payment that helps cover the loss of wages as a victim recovers at home. Sometimes, it is the aid and support given to the family of a murder victim struggling to pay for a funeral.
For the last 25 years, we have struggled to ensure our justice system is swift and sure and our outreach to victims compassionate and comforting.
For the past four years, I have been honored to serve a President who has followed the example of President Reagan. President Bush shared the grief and suffering we all felt on September 11th, and he reinforced the emotions of an entire nation that felt victimized. Importantly, he also believes that our justice system must protect the rights of crime victims.
Like President Reagan, President Bush has spoken eloquently about victims’ rights, saying “Justice is one of the defining commitments of America. In our war against terror, I constantly remind our fellow citizens we seek justice, not revenge. We seek justice for all victims . . . including justice for the victims of violent crime.”
Last October, President Bush signed the Justice for All Act-the most sweeping federal victims’ rights law in history.
The Justice for All Act gives victims in the federal system unprecedented access to see that justice is done. For example, all federal crime victims now have the right to attend proceedings in the case and to speak at sentencing hearings. And the Act explicitly affirmed their basic rights to be treated with fairness and with respect and to be notified of developments in their cases.
I’m proud to serve a President committed to moving victims from the margins of the system to its very center.
Three years ago, President Bush made his commitment to victims clear by endorsing a federal victims’ rights constitutional amendment. “Victims of violent crime,” he said, “have important rights that deserve protection in our Constitution.”
The President’s commitment to achieving this long-awaited goal remains undiminished. And I am privileged to help him honor that commitment and to use the Justice Department’s resources to help meet the needs of victims.
I commend John Gillis, the staff of the Office for Victims of Crime, and the staff of the Office of Justice Programs for the work they’ve been doing to serve victims. John’s own story shows that from suffering can emerge the gift of great strength.
John’s daughter Lourna was murdered in 1979 and he has since dedicated himself to the rights of victims and their families. He is another inspiring example of someone who -- like so many of you -- has transformed unimaginable suffering into his life's work. We all benefit from the gift of his efforts, and I thank him again.
Much like President Reagan’s Task Force, John’s staff has traveled the country to meet with and hear directly from victims, and they are using this invaluable feedback to shape their outreach.
They’ve also responded to the President’s call to enlist the faith community to further improve our outreach to victims. Today, victim assistance programs are working hand in hand with spiritual leaders, churches, and synagogues to help victims in the healing process.
And through the HOPE program, the Helping Outreach Programs to Expand Grant Program, the Justice Department has provided start-up funding to more than 300 grassroots victims’ organizations. These programs often operate on a shoestring but they are the best-indeed, sometimes the only-source of help and hope for victims.
One thing that the Department appreciates is that the process of helping victims takes a fierce toll on those who do the helping. I see our job, not only as providing resources to victims, but also as supporting the helpers. The Department’s Office for Victims of Crime is charged with meeting this responsibility by training and consulting with service providers and by giving them the tools and support they need to do their jobs.
One of our important crime-fighting efforts is to advance the use of DNA evidence. I know that a lot of attention has been given lately to the value of DNA in exonerating the innocent. Clearing the wrongly accused is an important application of forensic science, and one that I’m sure everyone here would applaud. But equally important is the potential of DNA to help victims and to prevent crime altogether.
For instance, rape survivors have often found themselves cross-examined relentlessly about their ability to identify their attacker. DNA analysis can ease that burden and conclusively establish identity.
Families of missing homicide victims grieve for answers. DNA analysis can allow us to identify victims and bring families some closure and comfort.
Crime data show that serial pedophiles commit dozens of crimes against children over a lifetime. DNA analysis can allow us to identify serial predators more quickly and prevent them from creating future crime victims.
The President and I know that DNA can also help solve crimes long after they were committed-allowing victims and their families come to terms with a crime, knowing that justice has been served.
Last year, thanks to DNA evidence, police and prosecutors solved the decade-old rape and murder of singer Mia Zapata. After 10 years of waiting, friends and family of Mia cried with relief when the perpetrator was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 37 years in prison.
DNA technology will give us the tools we need to bring greater speed and certainty to the process of seeking justice. DNA holds the promise of ending the fear of thousands of violent-crime victims who worry that their attacker might still be walking the streets. And it can mean that violent offenders pay for all their crimes-even those that are years, even decades old.
However, for all the energy that we commit to fighting crime, to seeking justice, and to comforting the victims of crime and the suffering of others . . . we should not forget that forgiveness can be a crucial part of the healing process.
In the days since the Pope passed away, many have been reminded of his poignant visit to forgive his attacker face to face. This required exceptional strength. For many, that strength is too difficult to summon.
But strength is what President Reagan saw when he looked at America. It’s what I see in the eyes of so many Americans as I travel across the country. It’s what we’ve seen from people like Trisha and other victims who’ve shared their stories.
The world knows us as a Nation that dares to achieve great things. As Americans, we know that daring flows from our strength of purpose, our commitment to others, and our compassion as a people.
Today, we honor so many healers and remember so many heroes. I commend you for dedicating yourselves to a most worthy cause: that of helping those in great need. You’ve left your mark as President Reagan did, as Pope John Paul II did, as so many victims have done by choosing to convert their suffering into a triumph of spirit for an entire community.
You have done your country, and your fellow citizens, a tremendous service.
I look forward to continuing this work together to build a better and more just Nation for all.
May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.