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

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

For many crime victims who offer forgiveness to their perpetrators, it's a matter of letting go of the rage they feel toward the person who hurt them or their loved one — whether the offender is remorseful or not.

Brian David Mitchell was sentenced to life in federal prison for one of the highest-profile crimes ever in Utah history — kidnapping and sexually abusing then 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart. During his federal trial, graphic details of the daily abuse Elizabeth suffered were presented as evidence.

Mitchell showed no signs of remorse. But before Mitchell was sentenced, both Elizabeth and her father, Ed Smart, said they had forgiven him.

"We aren't going around with this hate that consumes people," Ed Smart recently told the Deseret News. "It's not allowing that anger and that hate that you have for the person to eat you alive. I think it can just be so totally consuming it can take over your life."

The decision by a victim to forgive their perpetrator is a "very personal" one, said University of Utah law professor and former federal judge Paul Cassell.

But he cautioned that forgiveness should not be confused with accountability.

By telling someone that they forgive them, Salt Lake defense attorney Greg Skordas said a victim isn't telling them that what they did was OK.

"They're saying, 'I don't love you, I don't have any respect for you, but I forgive you,'" he said. "They've moved on. They're above it. It shows a lot of thought. A willingness to move on."

Forgive not forget

Dr. David Derezotes, a professor at the University of Utah's College of Social Work, agreed that forgiving someone is not the same as condoning their actions.

"Nor does it mean you no longer remember it, because you can't un-remember it," he said. "You're no longer willing to be poisoned by that anger. The anger no longer serves you. It does not mean I'm OK with it."

Just because he has forgiven Mitchell, Ed Smart said he never wants the former street preacher to be free again.

"I have no doubt he would pick up where he left off," Smart said. "To me, forgiveness isn't just turning a blind eye to what someone has done. You don't live with hate ... you move beyond it. You find the incredible goodness that was given to us by people in the community and the prayers that were said."

Ceran has done extensive research on the act of forgiveness for a book he just finished writing, tentatively titled, "The Greatest Wonder: How My Life Has Been Blessed By Adversity." As part of his research, he found inspiration in a quote from an unknown author: "Forgiving is not forgetting. It's letting go of the hurt."

Since the accident, Ceran has remarried to a woman who had four children of her own. Together, they adopted three more children from the Ukraine, giving them a total of nine.

Ceran said today he has no regrets about forgiving the man who hit and killed his family. And, in fact, feels even stronger now that it was the right thing to do.

Power of forgiveness

The power of forgiveness was something that Ceran saw first hand as a boy growing up in an unexpected place. His father, from Turkey, had been raised with an eye-for-an-eye way of thinking. One day, his father learned his mother was having an affair.

Ceran said he was afraid of what his father might do to his mother. But rather than anger, the father told her that if she agreed to never see the man again, she could remain in the house and he would forgive her.

Forgiveness was something that Ceran said he had been taught his entire life, and the decision to forgive the man who killed his family wasn't difficult.

The blessings a person receives for forgiving someone are as great as the ones the person being forgiven receives, he said.

During sentencing, Ceran asked for a lighter sentence than what was being recommended for Carlos Rodolfo Prieto.

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