Judging a papal apology – actions do speak louder than words

On Behalf of | Aug 4, 2022 | Catholic Church

When judging a Papal apology, sincerity and follow-up are key. Pope Francis has gotten wall-to-wall news coverage with what’s been called his ‘apology tour‘ in Canada. Francis stated, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples.” But apologies come in all shapes and sizes, and many people have been chiming in that he failed to offer a concrete way forward and next steps. Here are our two cents on what makes a good apology versus a bad one and what an apology tells us about the individual or institution that makes one.

Our first question is, “why is the pontiff expressing sorrow?” Could it be because of the church’s role in the “notorious” residential schools, which were designed to erase Indigenous culture and language by forcibly separating roughly 150,000 children from their families, where thousands of Indigenous children died, and countless others were sexually and physically abused?

Let that last part sink in: “where thousands of Indigenous children died, and countless others were sexually and physically abused.” According to a NY Times article, about a year ago, at the site of just one school, an analysis of ground-penetrating radar scans found evidence consistent with the testimony of former students that hundreds of students were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.

So it’s pretty clear that Francis has plenty to apologize for.

Here are five questions to ask when evaluating any apology:

Not surprisingly, Pope Francis, like bishops worldwide, especially in the US, has earned a failing grade this week.

  1. Is the apology clear? Francis, like his underlings, deliberately uses vague language, going so far as to not even mention the word “abuse.” “Roddy Gould Jr., chief of Abegweit First Nation in Scotchfort, said Pope Francis’s words were too vague and seemed unconnected to the hurt and trauma caused by the residential school system,” reported the Canadian Broadcast Company. Another Indigenous survivor of these horrific abuses said, “You can’t dance around the, you know, bypass the truth and go right to reconciliation . . .” These actions are, of course, consistent with the apologies of many Catholic officials, high and low. All too often, they get all hazy and refuse to use common terms used by the public, instead tossing around opaque church phrases that ‘soften the blow’ that plain, clear words would cause. One of the most memorable examplesof this comes from the now-retired cardinal who headed the New York Archdiocese for ages, Edward Egan. Egan stated, “If in hindsight we discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”
  2. Is the apology prompt? Again, the Pope fails on this score too. For decades, church and governmental authorities have known of this widespread, preventable, and egregious wrongdoing. In fact, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada first sought an apology from Pope Benedict XVI during a Vatican meeting 13 years ago. It’s hard to get excited about an apology or consider it sincere when it comes after years and years of begging.
  3. Is the apology forced or voluntary? In a technical sense, since Francis is the undisputed head of a global monarchy, no one can force him to do anything. However, the truth is that sometimes even monarchs feel compelled to respond to public pressure, media firestorms, and widespread discontent by their subjects. Sadly, however, in clergy sex abuse and cover-up cases, the level of shock, shame, and damage that must be done and exposed to prod Catholic officials to finally act is shocking.
  4. Does action follow it? If the past is any indication, we at Horowitz Law would be shocked if Pope Francis, in the days, weeks, and months to come, lays out a concrete plan to provide real help for vulnerable kids or wounded adults. Years ago, Canadian church officials promised to pay victims $25 million in restitution. To date, they have paid just 1.2 million Canadian dollars. Gould said, “The Catholic Church has accommodated and changed things in its church service to accommodate and keep its clientele. And that’s what I saw. I saw the largest political organization in the world make a vague, very articulated statement, not out of accountability, but to appease its base.”
  5. Does the apology come before or after wrongdoing is exposed? We’ve all heard apologies of both types: those offered AFTER someone else, not the wrongdoer, has revealed the bad behavior, and those offered BEFORE or WHILE the bad behavior is disclosed. We’d likely all agree that the ‘BEFORE’ and ‘WHILE’ apologies are always more genuine and, therefore, more healing. Suppose you’ve followed the church’s ongoing, decades-old, still-flourishing clergy sex abuse and cover-up crisis. In that case, you know that it’s exceptionally rare for a bishop or a Vatican bureaucrat to share news of a scandal and apologize for it BEFORE it hits the media.

In summary, we at Horowitz Law understand – and are glad – that some feel good about what Francis said in Canada this week. Those who suffer should, of course, get some comfort and consolation. But his words could and should have come sooner, been more explicit, and led to significant tangible help, not temporary emotional solace.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse in Colorado and nationwide. We can help.