The question of what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ apology – for victims/survivors as well as the general public – has perhaps never been more timely.  There are many examples of high-profile state apologies for historical wrongs, such as those by Bill Clinton, Kevin Rudd and David Cameron on behalf of their respective nations for slavery, ‘the Stolen Generations’ and ‘Bloody Sunday.’ More recently, in relation to sexual violence and historical abuses in particular, we have seen a cultural outpouring of apology surrounding the global #MeToo! and #TimesUp! movements.  This has given rise to the phenomenon of ‘over apologising’ and the follow-on question of what makes an effective or sincere apology?

In this respect, there is an acknowledged difference between saying ‘I am sorry’ and apologizing.  Fulsome apologies, when constructed and delivered in conjunction with affected communities, and in particular survivors, may provide an effective means for states and institutions to engage with past wrongdoing. While there is a vast inter-disciplinary literature on what constitutes a legitimate apology, at its most basic level, it is generally agreed that an apology involves specific acknowledgement of responsibility for wrongdoing and an unequivocal expression of regret.

Others emphasise that the future-focused aspects of the apology – in terms, for example, of the promise of non-repetition or the offer of tangible reparations – are equally as important to addressing past wrongs. Indeed, apology very much emerges as a process, rather than a single, one-off event, where how the apology is constructed and delivered is just as important as what is actually said.

The primary data emerging from our fieldwork (including in-depth semi-structured interviews with victims/survivors and apologisers) within the case study of historical institutional abuse supports these assertions.  A number of themes have emerged in relation to the construction of a true and effective narrative of remorse. These core themes which have emerged from our initial analysis of the fieldwork data also resonate with the broader theoretical notions of this project, including truth; accountability; legitimacy and audience; and reconciliation and follow-through.

First, the outward display of sincere emotion on the part of the apologiser is important for many survivors in terms of verifying the perceived authenticity of the apology.  Addressing the emotional dimension of harm is an established element of restorative justice. However, there are differences of opinion as to whether, empathy, remorse, guilt or shame is the primary emotion at play within restorative processes, including apology.  For many survivors, a visible and outward expression of emotion by the apologiser is pivotal to an apology as it maximises the opportunity to convey genuine remorse and empathy for them and their suffering and demonstrates engagement at a basic human level.

At the same time, ‘shame’ and the acceptance of ‘blame’ have also been key to many of the official apologies by the Irish State and the Catholic Church in the aftermath of historical institutional abuse. One of the most notable here perhaps is the apology delivered by then Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny in February 2013, following the publication of the McAleese Report into state involvement in ‘Magdalene Laundries’, where he was visibly moved to tears.  During the apology delivered in Dail Éireann, Kenny, in accepting the State’s direct involvement in the Magdalene regimes, references the ‘nation’s shame’ multiple times and acknowledges the women as ‘wholly blameless.’

Some survivors, however, do not want an apology as no words can ever make up for the depth of their suffering and its long term consequences.  For this group of survivors, therefore, anger remains the overriding emotion stemming not only from the physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect they suffered but from the long-standing failures of Church and State to acknowledge these abuses or indeed their institutional cover-up.

Second, in tandem with restorative thinking, the ‘ritual’ of apology and forgiveness can also be an important means of managing ‘shame’ for both victims and perpetrators.  On the one hand, apologies may validate victims’ suffering by acknowledging that they were gravely wronged.  On the other hand, apologies, by the acceptance of responsibility by the perpetrator, or their representatives, may reduce some of the external and internal blame surrounding the wrongdoing.

The language of repentance, forgiveness and redemption pervaded some of the interviews with both victims/survivors and apologisers.  It is important to acknowledge, however, that while asking for a forgiveness is a feature of many Church apologies for historical institutional abuse, within a true and abject apology, forgiveness can never be demanded but rather has to be earned and freely given.

Apologies may also be important at a collective level when addressed to society at large in terms of restoring the dignity of victims.  It is here that the backward and forward looking elements of an apology come into play. Apologies should ideally express regret for past wrongdoing as well as promise that things will be different in future – culturally as well as institutionally – so that the abuses will not be allowed to happen again. In this sense, apologies directed at multiple audiences (including survivors, other religious, wider society) have perhaps the most potential to fulfil these twin elements.

Both the apology delivered by Enda Kenny mentioned above and Pope Benedict XVI’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics in Ireland in March 2010 are examples of apologies directed at multiple internal and external audiences.  Both to varying degrees addressed the issue of wrongdoing stemming from historical institutional abuse including the level of State and Church involvement in sustaining the abusive regimes. However, they were criticised as lacking a fuller acknowledgement of institutional complicity in the abuses and the lack of appropriate follow-through in terms of providing reparations and truth for victims/survivors.

In this respect, apologies on their own, may not be enough to address historical institutional abuse. Indeed, without appropriate and tailored wider redress mechanisms, apologies may be just empty words.  Certainly, as was recommended by the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in its report published in January 2017, apologies are perhaps best seen as part of a broader package of reparations.  This also includes, for example, compensation, public memorialisation and a range of support services for survivors, such as counselling and enhanced access to health and social care.