I get asked quite often by people what is the role of apology and forgiveness in the work that I do. Well, the short answer is: not much. As a child sex abuse attorney having represented over over 300 men, women and children who suffered child sexual abuse, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have witnessed a genuine apology and a request for forgiveness. Whether from those responsible for Catholic priest abuse, Boy Scout abuse, Mormon abuse, or any of the other contexts in which these crimes occur– families, schools, athletic leagues– I just haven’t seen it, with but a few exceptions.
But as one who has made serious mistakes in my own life deeply hurting those I have loved, as a (not very virtuous) man of Christian faith, as a recovering alcoholic who has done his best to make amends to those I have harmed in my life, and as a human being who observes the human condition, I have read and thought a lot about apologies and forgiveness. So, in this and forthcoming blogs, I plan to reflect with you on the nature of apology and forgiveness.
We have all seen the pseudo-apology: "I’m sorry this happened to you." "I regret that you feel something I did– or did not do–caused you pain." "We regret your experience." These are not apologies and requests for forgiveness. These are words written by lawyers and publicists so their clients can get out of a legal scrape or a public embarrassment and yet not acknowledge wrongdoing. The Catholic Church is the most notorious user of this kind of pseudo apology. If you really read what the Church heirarchy has written, even the comments of the Popes, they do not amount to real apologies. The closest they have come is to "apologize for the heinous actions of some priests." But, of course, coming from the Church heirarchy– which, all too often, played a crucial role in allowing child sex abuse to occur– this rings hollow. It fails to acknowledge the role of the bishops and cardinals in transferring abusive priests, in covering up the problem, in denying the extent of it. It pretends that the problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church began and ended with a few errant priests. It ignores the culture of secrecy and denial that was so prevalent in the Church leadership structure during the last fifty years.
Not not only the Catholic Church, but also the Boy Scouts, the Mormon Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, governments and schools: I have seen all of them give short shrift to the apology and request for forgiveness that is so crucial to healing for survivors of child abuse.
A true apology and request for forgiveness starts with an unconditional acknowledgment– yes, even confession– of wrongdoing. "I was, we were, wrong. Our actions were selfish and wrong. There is no excuse. We are deeply sorry and offer our sincere and unconditional apology. We humbly ask your forgiveness." This kind of genuine apology takes its lead from the great spiritual traditions of the West: the biblical stories of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the New Testament’s idea of "metanoia"– repentance– which literally means to stop, turn around and go a different direction. The genuine apology has as its goal the deep and beautiful idea of reconciliation, that the purpose of life is to be in harmony with those around me, those I love, even those I have hurt or who have hurt me. It understands that, as long as you are diminished by my actions, I am diminished. I cannot be whole until you are whole. And so, the giver of a genuine apology yearns more than anything else to be restored to the one he has hurt. Anything less has some other purpose, and is not an apology. It cannot rightly ask forgiveness and it can never reach the goal of reconciliation and restoration.
Those who have harmed children, and those in whose names others have harmed children– churches, Scouts, youth organizations– have such an opportunity to foster healing for survivors of abuse. It is a shame– literally, a shame– that they do not more often practice the grace of genuine apology.
In the next post, I will write about some of the genuine apologies I have seen, and about the miraculous healing that they have brought about.