'Letting go of poison': In wake of grief, families offer astonishing acts of forgiveness

Published: Sunday, Sept. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Gary Ceran, whose wife, son and daughter were killed by a DUI driver, talks Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011 about why he and other crime victims forgive afterward.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As Gary Ceran stood behind his smashed car, he could see the double body bag just a few feet away from him that contained his wife and son.

It was Christmas Eve 2006. Ceran's car had just been plowed into by an intoxicated driver. His wife, a son and a daughter were killed in an instant. With flashing red and blue lights illuminating the night, Ceran looked at his deceased loved ones and the Christmas presents strewn across the road.

In addition to the tremendous loss of life, he thought about the medical bills that would soon flood his mailbox, how he didn't have any insurance and wondered how he was even going to make it to the hospital to see his son who survived the crash.

"It was an utter sense of disparage and hopelessness," he said.

But as he was being loaded into an ambulance after being placed on a gurney, Ceran did the only thing he said he could do in that situation — forgive the driver that had just turned his world upside down.

Ceran's story of forgiveness made headlines during the months and years that followed. It's a story that has also inspired others whom he has never met.

Just six weeks after Ceran's tragic accident, Chris Williams was hit by an intoxicated teenage driver. In that crash, Williams' wife, their unborn child, a son and only daughter were killed.

Like Ceran, Williams offered the boy that hit his family forgiveness.

There have been several high-profile crimes and accidents in Utah in recent years in which a startling act of forgiveness was offered by the victim or the victim's family to the person who caused the traumatic event.

Most recently, an astonishing act of forgiveness was given during a capital murder case in Salt Lake County.

Paul David Vara was spared a sure death sentence when he pleaded guilty to murdering 45-year-old Kristine Marie Gabel in a Fairmont Park bathroom and raping another woman in Pioneer Park, leaving her with severe injuries.

The brutality of the crimes shocked even veteran police and court officials. The man had pulled internal organs from his victim's body.

Third District Judge Mark Kouris told Vara that animals didn't even treat each other the way he'd treated his victims.

Before Vara was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Christian Schutz, Gabel's ex-husband, shocked many in the courtroom by telling Vara that despite the egregiousness of the crime and the nightmare he had put his family through, he forgave him.

"I believe it's what separates us from men like him," he said. "I am a man of faith. I believe it was the right thing to do."

Schutz noted it wasn't an easy decision to forgive.

As others who have explored the topic have noted, the fact that these acts of forgiveness surprise us is a reminder of how difficult an act it is.

Attitudes mixed

According to a 2010 survey conducted for the Fetzer Institute, 62 percent of Americans believe they need more forgiveness in their personal lives and 90 percent believe we need more forgiveness in America.

Yet 58 percent of Americans believe there are certain crimes for which people should never be forgiven, the survey found. When those respondents were asked what specific crimes, 41 percent said murder, 26 percent abuse or sexual crimes, 10 percent said betrayal. And 22 percent said any intentionally committed crime should not be forgiven.

Additionally, 60 percent of Americans believe that forgiving someone would first depend on the offender apologizing and making changes.

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