‘I’m sorry:’ Apologies and abuse


October 31, 2018 | Viewpoints | Volume 22 Issue 21
Carol Penner |
(Photo: flickr.com/photos/spudmurphy/2219131207/)

What role do apologies play in healing from abuse? We may feel that we can’t go wrong by offering an apology. We encourage people to apologize to each other in church. Unfortunately, too often quick apologies lead to more hurt than healing, especially in the context of abuse, where the hurt done is so long-lasting and painful.

Here are six areas where apologies can go wrong:

1. It’s too soon. People who abuse others often do this by objectifying the other person. People who abuse are profoundly self-centred and have little empathy for their victims. When they are caught, they may feel some remorse, but often they are more sorry for themselves than they are for their victims. Apologies from abusers can fall flat because they don’t show empathy. Intensive counselling, often for years, is needed before abusers can develop empathy, let alone formulate words that can convey true repentance.  

2. Lawyers get involved. Sometimes people get legal advice, and lawyers are worried that their clients may be sued, so they urge those accused of abuse not to make public statements taking responsibility. Instead of statements saying “I did . . . ,” which name behaviours, or “I was wrong to . . . ,” which show awareness of wrongdoing, they express sorrow or regret “if you were hurt.” This vagueness and deflection is extremely painful, particularly when statements subtly blame or implicate the survivor in the abuse. Apologies can be a way of manipulating survivors or of gaining public support at the expense of survivors.

3. Words are not enough. Words are entirely empty unless they are accompanied by some sort of practical restitution. If abusers are sorry for something they’ve done, are they willing to pay counselling costs for their victims? Are they naming other people that they hurt and seeking to make amends to them? Words without any actions to back them up are cheap and insincere for survivors whose lives have been shattered by abuse.

4. We like things clean and tidy. When abuse happens in church, there is a lot of pain and suffering. Sometimes we feel that if someone would just apologize, and someone would just forgive, this whole mess would go away. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Apologies usually don’t miraculously heal people. Healing from abuse is a gift from God that usually takes years. One apology cannot short-circuit that process.

5. Power dynamics. Abuse is about power. People who abuse are often good at getting their own way and at manipulating others. This manipulation often extends to the apology process, which they control to their best interests. Unless survivors of abuse are consulted extensively about the apology process, they may feel that the abuser has again gained the upper hand.

6. Victim blaming. After an apology, sometimes churches expect survivors to move on: “You’ve got your apology, now you have to let it go.” Survivors need support, not judgment about how they are reacting to an apology or how they are processing their ongoing pain.

Apologies can serve a purpose. They work best when people who have abused participate in counselling to really understand what they have done. Apologies are more likely to have a positive effect if they are vetted by an accountability and support group rather than just by a lawyer. This group can advise those apologizing when their words are self-serving or vague, and are likely to be more hurtful than helpful.

It’s hard to get it right when it comes to responding to abuse. What may seem like common sense can turn out to be hurtful, simply because you haven’t been in that situation before. It’s important to pray for guidance and to equip yourself with ideas about best practices in responding to situations of abuse.

Carol Penner teaches and writes in the area of practical theology. After many years as a pastor in various Mennonite congregations, she now teaches at Conrad Grebel University College. She is the author of “Sacred trust,” an educational series on sexual misconduct in the church (mcec.ca/sacredtrust).

(Photo: flickr.com/photos/spudmurphy/2219131207/)

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Hi Carol,

Thanks for some very good thoughts about how apologies can make things worse for victims of abuse. I especially like your fourth point: "We like things clean and tidy." Perhaps this is because abuse in a church setting isn't just about the perpetrator and the victim. It often involves an unhealthy, enmeshed and closed system. An abuse disclosure disrupts this disordered system and people want to return to "normal" as quickly as possible. That's why it is so important for victims to get competent outside professional help. Equally important is outside professional intervention with abusers, which sometimes means involving the criminal justice system.

You are right- healing for victims can take years, and part of the difficulty is the long and arduous task of rebuilding the shattered self, rebuilding violated boundaries and reestablishing confident agency. This is often impossible to do in the context of a church setting, especially a Mennonite one where people have a multitude dual relationships including kinship, workplace and social and where the families of abusers are often power brokers or power holders at the congregational, denominational or other institutional levels.

Add to this a culture of valuing community over individualism and reconciliation over individual autonomy and you get a system that continues to see victims and offenders as a circle of healing rather than two individuals that need to follow very different and unrelated paths: accountability for perpetrators and recovery for victims, a recovery that often involves exiting churches in order to build healthy relationships in other settings.

Thank you, Kathy. I have seen survivors of pastoral abuse leave the church to find healing precisely because of institutional barriers. Congregations are often very diligent in trying to restore people who have offended, while subtly or not so subtly marginalizing those who have been abused. And your comments about prioritizing community at the expense of the wounded is spot on. Your point on law enforcement is extremely important, and a needed addition to that article. Too often churches think apologies will work when crimes have been committed; justice is also part of the healing journey. Thank you for commenting.

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