Pope’s apology won’t be enough for change
Ever tried to apologise to someone and been rebufffed?
Pope Benedict experienced just that on the weekend when he made an apology to Irish people who were sexually abused by Catholic priests.
His apology came in the wake of last November’s government report, The Murphy Report, which found the Irish clergy “obsessively” concealed child abuse by priests in Dublin from 1975 - 2004 and operated under a policy of ” don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In a letter Benedict had Irish Cardinal Sean Brady read publicly, and which he asked to be read at Catholic churches across Ireland over the weekend, the Catholic leader said “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry ... I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”
But for many victims it simply wasn’t enough.
It got me thinking about the importance of an apology and what is needed for an effective apology.
In 2008 I was one of the lucky few who were at Parliament House to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his sorry speech.
As far as saying sorry goes it was pretty spot on; it was thoughtful, well received and has moved the reconciliation movement in Australia forward from a struggle for recognition for past wrongs to the more “practicial” reconciliation of improving indigenous living standards.
The differences between Benedict’s apology and Rudd’s are stark and worth thinking about.
The most obvious difference is that Rudd gave his sorry speech in person and in Parliament House, the heart of the government and all it’s power. It carried with it the full weight and significance of the federal government.
The Pope needed to deliver his words in person and at the Vatican, in front of abuse victims. This would have shown the Catholic Church is serious about addressing sexual abuse by priests.
The next big difference were the words themselves; Rudd’s words were explicit, stark and honest.
This passage stayed with me for a long time.
“We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.
“We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.
“We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.”
It took full responsibility for the wrongs of the past.
Benedict’s was a little different.
His was the kind of sorry, where you say sorry without really admitting you did anything wrong.
He denounced those individuals gulity of abuse, but never took responsibility for the broader role the Catholic Church had in creating and maintaining an environment where this abuse could happen.
Finally he asked for victims’ forgiveness without committing the church to doing anything at all to earn such forgiveness.
There is not one concrete reform or change that will stop children being abused by priests that was announced in the Pope’s letter.
Rudd on the other hand spoke in detail of his government’s committment to improving Aboriginal health, education and living standards. It’s one of the major areas his legacy should one day be judged on.
I remember after his speech speaking to an Aboriginal woman who had driven down from Northern NSW with her mum and three-year-old son to Canberra. She and her mother were, like many people there on that day, in a euphoric mood.
She told me that for her the apology meant Aboriginals could move forward from the hurts of the past. It was a chance for a fresh start.
That young mum like many other Aboriginals showed incredible grace when she so readily accepted Rudd’s apology, and she taught me more about the power of our words than any barking editor yet has.
Reconciliation may still be possible between the Catholic Church and its victims, but it will require a better apology than the one we saw on the weekend from the Pope.