RIO DE JANEIRO (RNS) A pioneering mediation program in Brazil is banking on religious leaders using their conciliatory skills to resolve conflicts between families and neighbors, while helping the judicial system reduce a massive backlog of cases overloading the country’s courts.
The "Mediar e Divino" ("To Mediate is Divine") pilot project in the state of Goias, has started training evangelical pastors, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers on the legalities of reconciling bickering parties and settling social squabbles.
“The idea of forming a partnership between the courts and the church is unprecedented in Brazil,” said Paulo Cesar das Neves, the senior Goias judge responsible for setting up the program.
Das Neves said the aim is to develop alternative methods of conflict resolution.
“Brazil is a highly religious society and it dawned on me that along with a mission to evangelize religious leaders also have a mission to reconcile and pacify citizens,” he said.
Every year, hundreds of community disputes end up in the courtroom. According to the Department of Justice, there are between 105 million to 200 million civil cases caught up in the national judiciary with hundreds of thousands taking anywhere between two to 10 years to reach a court hearing. In 2015 Goias state alone registered over 800,000 legal cases.
The new clergy-led mediation program, which started its second training session in late March with 21 clerical representatives, offers a simpler and cheaper arbitration route, with participants learning how to hold "conversations" in the congenial surroundings of a church hall. The goal is to eliminate the need for lawyers and draw on a culture of peaceful conciliation.
Participants on the course have been recruited through word of mouth and on recommendation from others who believe they possess the right disposition, patience, impartiality and analytical ability.
The course, approved by the National Justice Council and run by law experts based at the Courts of Justice in the State of Goias, involves about 40 hours of legal theory and 60 hours of supervised practice including simulating conflicts. So far the pilot program is being paid for by the justice courts in Goias, but it is unclear how much it will cost the government once fully implemented or what kind of savings it might accrue.
Many of the cases being brought before clergy and lay preachers include marital issues, child custody, failure to pay child support and disputes between neighbors. These cases are typical of the disagreements progressing through Brazil’s notoriously slow judicial system, hampered by bureaucracy and red tape, and hindered by limited time and scarce resources.
Approximately 130 mediation sessions have already been held since the free, voluntary, sessions began a month ago, with 90 agreements resulting in a 70 percent conciliation success rate.
According to Pew Research Center, Brazil is among the most religious countries in the world with an estimated 123 million Roman Catholics and a growing Protestant community of 42 million people in a nation of some 200 million. It is also a country of diverse religions such as Candomble and Umbanda, syncretic polytheistic beliefs that draw on African spiritual traditions mixed with elements of Roman Catholicism.
All are represented in the training sessions said Marielza da Costa, one of the instructors on the course.
“When we started I expected to meet some resistance from those attending the training because of religious differences,” said da Costa. “The first session brought together 14 leaders from different denominations and to my surprise I came across people speaking one language and promoting one message.
“On all occasions they have performed with a united approach using their religious knowledge and legal teachings to reach a common point and social peace.”
Evangelical pastor Miguel Bernardino Viveiros, from the Senador Canedo Baptist Church in Goias, joined the second course last month and said his ministry will benefit.
“This training brings justice closer to home and will help us reach out, not just to our congregation, but to the wider community about living peaceably,” he said.
The prospect of taking the plan nationwide is already in the works. Das Neves will present the project at a national meeting of conciliators and mediators in Cuiaba, in the southern state of Mato Grosso, this month.
“We want to replicate this project and spread it throughout the whole country,” he said, “because in Brazil every town and every neighborhood has a church."
Cintia Lopes, who lives in Aparecida de Goiania, the second largest city in Goias, said she was "thrilled" to find this type of service.
Divorced from her hairdresser husband seven years ago, she hasn’t received a penny of child support for their 8-year-old daughter.
“After he refused to make any payment, I felt forced to take him to court three years ago,” said Lopes. “The lawyer was expensive and the case dragged on for over two years before it was heard. In the meantime I had to borrow money to put food on our table.”
Her ex-husband was ordered by a judge last year to back pay a negotiated sum of thousands of dollars under Brazilian alimony law, and to contribute 33 percent of his earnings towards his child’s upkeep or face prison.
Despite the ruling, he still hasn’t paid. Reluctant to put her ex-husband behind bars, Lopes was relieved to discover a nun and a priest at the Catholic church she attends, Santa Terezinha do Menino Jesus, had just started scheduling "To Mediate is Divine" hearings.
“They set up an appointment for us to meet within a few days last month. It was so quick and no costly lawyers were involved,” said Lopes. “After an hour and a half of discussion and reasoning, my ex-husband promised to pay what was owed.”
The agreement made by the clergy is legally binding and forwarded to a judge for approval. In the case of noncompliance, the mediators can either recall the defendant or the judge can intervene.
“I really felt encouraged by the professional way it was handled,” Lopes said. “I’m now hoping he will finally start paying and prove this way of mediation really does work.”
(Janet Tappin Coelho is a correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro)