Apologies for Historical Institutional Abuses

Anne-Marie McAlinden, Queen’s University Belfast

Over the last few decades, revelations about historical abuses of women and children have emerged across the globe including but not limited to institutional or religious settings. In response, state and church officials have issued public apologies as a form of redress for victims/survivors. These have also been accompanied by public inquiries or commissions of investigation as well as broader reparations such as compensation schemes. Indeed, the literature relating to public law and transitional and restorative justice highlights that apologies may entail both material as well as symbolic reparations. That is, they may work towards restoring the imbalance between victims and perpetrators via the taking of formal responsibility for wrongdoing; as well as signifying a break with the past.

Apologies have also been given readily in times of crisis or scandal by politicians or public figures. This cultural over use of apologies may dilute their significance and impact and prompt questions concerning their adequacy and sincerity including – to what extent can apology address historical wrongdoing?; what makes an effective apology?; and what latent barriers may exist to prevent meaningful apologies?

In order to address these and related questions, a team of researchers at Queen’s University Belfast undertook a five-year research project (June 2016-November 2021) funded by the ESRC (Grant Ref: ES/N010825/1). examining ‘Apologies and Dealing with the Past’ in Ireland, North and South, across three case studies: paramilitary violence; the economic crisis; and historical institutional abuse. This project involved archival research of public apologies; an interdisciplinary literature review (e.g. law; criminology; sociology; political science; history); and extensive empirical research across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – a public survey; focus groups with the public; and with victims; and semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, including those involved in constructing, delivering and receiving apologies. The findings of this project, while focused on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, have resonance for other jurisdictions grappling with the legacy of past abuses, currently and in the future.

Theoretical debates on apologies establish their broader utility in addressing the legacy of the past and the essential elements which they should contain. An effective apology must: (1) acknowledge wrongdoing; (2) accept responsibility; (3) express  regret; (4) promise non-repetition; and (5) make the offer of repair or corrective action (see Apologies-Institutional-Abuse-Report_Sept-2018.pdf. The recent state apology to victims/survivors of historical institutional abuses in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Executive on 11 March 2022, was based on these five elements (see Northern Ireland Executive ministers’ apology to historical abuse victims and survivors | UTV | ITV News ). The state apology was also accompanied by a number of apologies from individual institutions. While the state apology was well received by victim/survivor groups, the ones from the institutions or religious orders were not. In essence, this illustrates that apologies for HIA are highly complex in terms of their construction and delivery and their perceived effectiveness by individual victims/survivors.

Much of this complexity is derived in two factors. The first is the fear of reputational damage or legal or financial liability on the part of the state or religious organisations if they admit responsibility for wrongdoing. The second is concerns with internal and external audiences, including, members of the wider public as well as victims/survivors or their families. Both of these factors have shaped the scope and content of public apologies by state and church actors for historical abuses in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  

As I explore in my recent article in the JLS (From ‘Shame’ to ‘Guilt’: Negotiating Moral and Legal Responsibility within Apologies for Historical Institutional Abuse)(Vol 49, Issue 3, 2022), there are a number of specific techniques which apologisers may use to avoid accepting formal responsibility in a legal sense. These include:

  • (1) the use of language – including the passive rather than active voice, euphemistic language (e.g. ‘hurt’ suffered rather than ‘harm’ or ‘abuse’) and a deliberate avoidance of the language of human rights and their violation which have a ‘backgrounding’ or distancing effect in terms of the acceptance of responsibility for specific wrongdoing; and
  • (2) the avoidance of wider redress – in terms of failures by church and state to name or deliver on appropriate follow-through actions and more tangible forms of redress such as monetary compensation, access to personal records or changes to policies and procedures which would ensure non-repetition.

These factors usually result in ‘scripted’ apologies which appear to apologise without really ‘saying sorry’ or accepting responsibility for historical abuses in both a moral and legal sense.

In addition, there are a range of legal and ideological barriers which may prevent sincere and effective apologies which relate to the Catholic Church in particular. These include the role of canon law in justifying non-compliance with normative legal processes; the role of lawyers in advising on the content of apologies so that responsibility is minimised; and concerns with placating multiple audiences such as wider society, and even the state, rather than victims/survivors directly. The result is usually a performative or ‘tokenistic’ apology which employs the rhetoric of regret but without meeting the cathartic needs of victims/survivors in terms of the full and unqualified acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

More broadly, inherent questions remain concerning whether it is ever possible for church and state leaders to deliver an effective apology for historical wrongdoing committed by their predecessors decades previously. Moreover, for some victims/survivors, no apology, no matter how effusive, can ever hope to address the long-lasting and often intergenerational impact of the abuses on their lives. However, the research found that apologies which are expansive in terms of the five elements of an effective apology outlined above, which are open in accepting full responsibility for wrongdoing, and which demonstrate sincerity in the mode of delivery (including, for example, via the display of emotion by the apologiser) are more likely to be accepted by victims/survivors.

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