Naming, Shaming and Apologising

What an apology given 34 years too late can teach us about the act of saying sorry

Kerry babies justice DNA

Over 30 years ago, An Garda Síochána made a terrible mistake. And then they compounded it.

They assumed the very worst of a young woman under suspicion of murdering a child, even though medical testing at the time shed plenty of doubt on her guilt. They could not convict her of murder, so they made her pay for it the only way they knew how: through shame.

They dragged her family through the mud, outed an illicit romance, and made her literally sick on the tribunal stand—a tribunal that had been set up to question their motives, not hers.

This week, modern technology offered this woman and her family a small measure of justice and proof of what they always claimed to be true. She was not the guilty party. In return, the Gardaí and the government gave her this: a letter, a phone call, and a press conference apology.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to get an apology. It’s not so uncommon to hear the merits of forgiveness, 70x7 and all that. But how often do we exhort one another to ask for forgiveness? How long is too long, to let those words of empathy and sorrow go by? Does there have to be proof of wrongdoing or a public reprimand in order to make amends? And what if we never get it?                  

In a statement yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the woman falsely accused was “a woman who was very badly treated by her State and by her society in a way that so many other women have been in the past, and that needs to change.” He then offered his own apology on behalf of the government and the country, saying the memories of this tragic story highlight the changes in Irish society from then till now.

Professor Tom Inglis of UCD’s School of Sociology (and author of a book on the case), agrees, telling the Irish Independent that “she was caught up in this calamitous situation, the guards, the legal system, the media, the forces fighting for the soul of Ireland... You had the deeply patriarchal, conservative Catholic Ireland against the new Ireland that was struggling to emerge.”

At some point the ‘that was a different time’ excuse no longer works, when we are clearly still in that time.

Evangelicals aren’t immune to this kind of cultural stigma, either. Two decades after sexually assaulting a youth in his ministry – and only after she came forward as part of the growing #MeToo movement – a pastor in the States confessed in front of his congregation to the “sexual incident.” In response, he received a standing ovation.

Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today writes that while the pastor claims he apologized to the victim, her family and the church immediately, the victim was instructed by her church to remain silent.

“So, not only do we have a questionable standing ovation after a problematic apology, but also accusations that church leadership were and continue to be involved in marginalizing the victim,” says Stetzer.

“People have become jaded from carefully scripted and insincere apologies from these individuals,” says Dr Nikki Martinez, a professor and counselor. “Often the apologies have been put together by their PR rep, and the individual had nothing to do with the creation of the apology at all. Most importantly, the person only apologies when they have been caught, and when there are going to be serious consequences.”

At some point the “that was a different time” excuse no longer works. We are clearly still in that time, when people apologize only when forced to. Thirty years is too long to wait to make things right, and churches, governments, and the police should be held accountable for their abuses and actions.

And maybe more importantly, we must be willing to ask ourselves if and how we can make amends for the things we've done, overlooked or contributed to, lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of another 30 years.

“Ireland was a different place in 1984,” Garda Superintendent Flor Murphy said in a statement on Tuesday. “It was a different society with different societal pressures. We would hope that in the Ireland of 2018 that people will be more prepared to come forward.”

We would hope the same thing, too.

Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash