Three tales of forgiveness

Andrea Coutts and her mum, Ailsa, were glad they could help the remorseful German pilot who shot down their father and husband by forgiving him.
Andrea Coutts and her mum, Ailsa, were glad they could help the remorseful German pilot who shot down their father and husband by forgiving him.

Forgiveness – an easy word to say, a difficult notion to put into practice. This Easter weekend, three people tell Bess Manson how they forgave a murderer, a soldier and an adulterer.


Linda Dyne hugged her son, Justin, goodbye as he caught the train to Auckland from Upper Hutt in the winter of 2000. They said "I love you" to one another, as they always did when they parted. He was planning to move back to Upper Hutt to be closer to family. But he never came home. Dyne never saw her 25-year-old son again.

Justin's body was found in the Waitakere Ranges that September. He had been strangled and dumped in the bush more than a month earlier.

"I had an instinct something was very wrong. He'd not been in contact for several weeks. A friend rang to say police had been on TV talking about clothing and jewellery found with a body in a bush. She told me they look like Justin's. When I was shown the items I knew they must be his. At first I was in denial, but there aren't many bone carvings like the one he wore."

Through dental records it was confirmed to be Justin's body.

"He was loveable and witty. He was sympathetic and caring, but also naive," says Dyne. "He had been diagnosed with ADHD at 18 and had been in and out of rehabs because of his cannabis use. He was susceptible to getting in with the wrong crowd and had been involved in some petty crime. My biggest fear was of him ending up in prison."

Dyne says she was a mess for a long time after Justin's death. "I was running on anger. I was riddled with it. Every time I thought about my son and how he had died in this horrendous way ... As a mother that's something you never want to experience."

A year later, Tristan Lawson, 22 at the time, was jailed for life for Justin's murder. He was freed in December last year.

Forgiveness for Dyne was a "sign from God". "I have always been a Christian. One day, about two years after Justin's death, I was studying the Bible and something fell out of it. A piece of paper. It was a leaflet about the Sycamore Tree programme."

The Prison Fellowship's Sycamore Tree Programme offers a forum for people - often the victims of crime - to tell offenders about the impact of crime on their lives. Offenders directly linked to the victim's case are not present, but the type of crime committed is often matched to participants.

"I don't know how that piece of paper got into the Bible, but I looked at it and thought 'Yes!'. I had a huge compulsion to get involved."

It was a hard process, but it helped, Dyne says. "It set me free. Along with other victims we shared our stories with offenders. At the end I was offered the opportunity to meet the man who killed Justin. It was going to take a lot of courage but I knew I needed to meet him. Forgiveness was something I needed to do for myself.

"I thought about how young he was when he committed this crime. I thought forgiveness would help him be a better person when he came out."

Her family could not understand why she wanted to meet him.

"When the day came, I prayed all the way to Wellington Prison. When Lawson came in to the meeting his head was hung and he wouldn't look at me. He said he made no excuses for what he did. I told him what he had done to me and my family. How taking Justin from us had affected my family. A piece of me was carved out the day he killed Justin. I'll never get to see him find love and have a family. A mother always expects to be buried by her children, not the other way around.

"Then I told him I was a Christian and that I wanted to forgive him. He looked at me for the first time. He was overwhelmed. Then I hugged him."

Dyne says Lawson promised her he'd make something out of his life when he came out of prison. "And that's my biggest wish, that he comes out and makes a better life."

Dyne emerged from prison that day in awe of what had just occurred. "I used to go to a lot of ugly places in my heart before I forgave Lawson. Forgiveness has released me. I can understand why some people would not be able to forgive something like this. It was certainly a struggle for me. The only way I was able to do it was with God's help.

"The Sycamore Tree Programme also helped me see offenders as human beings with a soul. Not just the perpetrator of a terrible crime.

"I hope Justin doesn't think I have betrayed him. I think he would have wanted his mother to be happy and move on."


Andrea Coutts understands forgiveness. She forgave the man who killed her father.

Andrea, now 70, was barely a few weeks old, and her sister 7 years old, when her father, Andrew Coutts, was shot down over the North Sea by a German pilot. Andrew was part of the 487 Squadron flying low over occupied Holland to bomb strategic targets when he was downed. He was 27.

Thirty years after his death, that German pilot called Andrea and her mother, Ailsa, now 100, to ask their forgiveness.

The pilot, whose name has blurred in their memory, had been tracked down by a Dutch researcher, who was able to put him in touch with Andrea's family. "When the pilot called, he just dissolved into tears," Andrea says. "He told us he was so sorry and asked our forgiveness. We told him we had forgiven him long ago.

"It could very easily have been the other way round. It could have been my father who shot him down and we would be the ones making this call. That's war."

Andrea says her mother had always taught them not to hold a grudge against the Germans. "Many of them didn't want to fight, just as our boys didn't want to go to war. If you remain angry and unforgiving, you'll be miserable for the rest of your life.

"We were always taught to forgive and forget. If someone stole our lunch money or our coat, our mother would say that they must have needed it more than we did.

"It would have been better to have been brought up with a father, but my mother did the best she could. You just get on with it. I just felt sorry that this man had to put himself through having to ask for forgiveness. But I think he needed to hear that from us. I think the call really helped him get it off his conscience and for that I am glad to
have been able to help him."


Ursula Keay had a rule: If her partner ever strayed, that would be the end of  that. But when it happened, she couldn't quite reconcile that rule with her true feelings.

The 24-year-old and her partner, Sergio Cuevas, 30, had met while working at a hotel in Mexico three years ago. ''It sounds corny but it was love at first sight,'' Keay says.

When her six-month contract was up, she returned to New Zealand. Cuevas was expected to join her within months. When his mother suddenly died, he had to spend his ticket money on her funeral. While Keay saved to get herself over to Mexico to support him emotionally, he embarked on a short affair.

''After about six weeks I flew over to Mexico. I spent a month there and returned to New Zealand to pack up my life to move to Mexico long-term. It wasn't till I got back there in October that I discovered his affair.

''I was absolutely heartbroken. Every time I thought about what he had done, I felt such anger. We spent a couple of months fighting and eventually we went to couple's therapy. 

''He desperately wanted to make it work. He told me it was a mistake, that he'd been at a really low ebb, that he didn't know what he was doing.  

''Despite my anger, I knew I still loved him. I decided I had to be able to forgive him if we were going to have a future together. I can't change the past but I can have a say in my future and I knew I wanted it to be with him.''

It's been hard forgiving him, Keay  says. ''It's taken months to really forgive and trust him again. The fact that he's so remorseful helped. The therapy really helped make us communicate better.''


Keay returned to New Zealand last month. Cuevas will be joining her in a few weeks. She trusts him completely, she says. They have even talked about marriage.

‘‘He knows he messed up and understands why that happened. He won’t be making the same mistake again. In a way, having to work through something like this and coming out the other side still together has actually made us stronger.’’

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