Tuesday, 1 April 2014

"Sorry" - pondering the art of the apology

Lately I've been thinking about apologies. I think this is partly because the evening news is filled with stories of the day's proceedings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The personal stories are harrowing and I find it difficult to comprehend that what now seems like an epidemic was hidden for so long. The stories are also littered with brave souls deciding to speak up and then being further victimised in the way the institutions responded to the complaint. Often one of the things being sought was an apology. Frequently, the institution receiving the complaint was a faith based organisation. I can imagine these organisations are proud of values like compassion, respect, justice and empathy. Money was usually offered and usually rejected as the apology remained missing in action.

Australia's most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, recently apologised to abuse victim John Ellis. As I watched, I didn't notice what was said because I was so overwhelmed by the fact that he wasn't looking at the person to whom he was apologising. It just looked like a person going through the expected steps, rather than demonstrating any heart connection. (I can't judge intention, but am reflecting on what was being transmitted on the visual communication channel.)

Tonight I also heard that two years ago, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised to the families of people killed at the Hillsborough soccer stadium twenty-five years ago.

Apologies are so often sought. I wonder at the satisfaction when they are received. What is the essential quality that causes the apology to be received in a way that it goes some way to repair damage and hurt?

Australia has its own long record of grappling with the question of saying sorry to our indigenous people. I could always embrace the idea that one should be offered because it just seemed like the decent thing to do. In February I was listening to the radio in the car, while I drove across town. The show was being broadcast from a concert to mark the anniversary of the apology which was eventually delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Kutcha Edwards talked about the wound that indigenous Australians have as a result of the removal of children (the stolen generations). He talked about that when you're wounded you have less capacity to deal with further pain; while ever that wound is left unattended it will fester and ache and ooze and weep. The wound needs to be tended to, so that it can begin to heal.

I listened and the tears rolled. It was the most humble and sensible description I had ever heard.

We know the power of words - to heal or inflict pain - so why is it so hard to say sorry with truth and sincerity? Perhaps it' s the surrender of the ego as wrongdoing is admitted. In order to reach this point, empathy needs to be felt and demonstrated.

Kutcha Edwards also made me rethink my working definition of empathy when the broadcaster raised the family metaphor of "walking in another's shoes". Mr Edwards pounced and said that this was not enough; the understanding needs to be deepened so there is appreciation for why a person is in a particular pair of shoes.


I was in Federation Square in Melbourne, as the community gathered together to hear the Prime Minister apologise on behalf of white Australians. I cried. I stood amongst others who were also moved.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard also apologised to mothers and their children who were separated at birth through policies of enforced adoption. It was overshadowed by the internal political shenanigans of the Labor Party at the time, but I remember being just as moved.

It seems we have a lot to say sorry for as a country and probably as individuals too. Have you apologised lately? Perhaps you've received an apology - what made it work? or fail? 

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