Co-investigator Prof Anne-Marie McAlinden has authored this blog to accompany the release of the research report: Apologies and Institutional Child Abuse. You can access the full report here.

From at least the 1990s, the issue of institutional child abuse has emerged as a major societal issue which has resonated internationally. High profile cases of historical institutional child abuse have arisen in the United States, Australia, Canada and across Europe. A range of official responses have been deployed including public inquiries or truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, monetary redress schemes as well as public apologies by church and state.

In the Republic of Ireland, the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, issued the first state apology to victims of institutional child abuse in May 1999. Beginning with the Ryan Report (2009), a series of Commission reports highlighted the systemic nature of abuse – physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect – within institutions run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Irish State and the failure of the authorities to intervene.

In the wake of the publication of the McAleese Report into state involvement in the Magdalene Laundry regimes in February 2013, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a second fulsome apology to survivors, which was widely praised as a defining moment in his premiership.

In Northern Ireland, the report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry was published in January 2017. To date, following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, its key recommendations with respect to public apology, memorialisation, and compensation for victims have not been realised.

At this timely juncture, this report examines the role of public apologies as response by state governments, religious orders and individual members of the clergy in the aftermath of institutional child abuse.  As public expressions of acknowledgement, responsibility and regret for past harms, meaningful apologies can vindicate the experiences and suffering of survivors and contribute to their personal healing.

In addition to the restorative benefits for victims, at a broader collective level, apologies can also help society to come to terms with the past as symbolic acknowledgement of harm and visible sign of a break with the past, as well as a tangible reminder that such harms should not be allowed to recur in the future.

While there has been a plethora of public apologies to victims/survivors of institutional child abuse in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by governments, civil authorities, as well as religious orders and individual clergy – often following public revelations of abuse or accompanying the announcement or conclusion of public inquiry proceedings – the sincerity and legitimacy of apologies in the context of such serious wrongdoing has often been questioned.

Indeed, as this report also highlights, there are many examples of ‘non-apologies’, or ‘apologising without apologising’, where the apology has fallen short in terms of its form, function and effect. These apologies have been judged as insincere, as they are viewed as an effort to placate the public or silence victims, rather than as a legitimate attempt to openly and explicitly redress wrongdoing.

One of the core tasks of this report is to examine the key elements of a meaningful apology for victims and survivors of institutional child abuse.  While the academic literature varies in terms of precisely how these various elements are conceptualised, a sincere and legitimate apology would include the following: an explicit acknowledgement of wrongdoing; an acceptance of responsibility; an expression of remorse or regret; a promise of non-repetition; and an offer of reparation or corrective action.

Moreover, it is not only the content or language of an apology which may help determine its effectiveness or contribute to its perceived sincerity in the eyes of victims and the wider public. The context, performance and choreography of the apology – where it is delivered, when, how and by whom – also emerge as pivotal factors.  Crucially, apologies are likely to be perceived as meaningful when they are delivered in a broader context and setting which demonstrate solemnity and significance as well as appropriate follow through – such as the setting out of clear mechanisms for truth, accountability, reform and redress.

However, there are a range of obstacles which may impede a meaningful apology which the report also highlights. These include the fear of legal or financial liability or reputational damage which can prevent offenders from accepting full responsibility for wrongdoing. For collective apologies, made on behalf of a whole organisation such as the Catholic Church or the state, lack of consensus among the leadership in terms of the precise language, form and performance of the apology can also thwart the construction and delivery of a legitimate and sincere apology.

Although meaningful apologies are not easy to deliver, they have been repeatedly cited as one of the highest priorities by survivors of historical institutional child abuse. The report highlights the competing tensions surrounding the construction and delivery of a legitimate apology which seeks to balance the often differing priorities of apologisers and victims/survivors.  While words alone, without more tangible responses, are likely to be insufficient for victims, an apology often represents a first and necessary step to coming to terms with the past.