APOLOGIES FOLLOWING CLERGY ABUSE
Geoff W. Sutton
Have you ever known a religious leader who made a public apology following an offense? Investigations in the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests have been in the news for years. Leaders within the CatholicChurch have made public apologies. American televangelists and prominent preachers also made headlines for wrongdoing. Rape is traumatic in any context. It seems so much worse in religious settings where leaders teach sexual purity and represent God to the faithful. People are vulnerable in settings where trust is encouraged. Children are vulnerable in any setting. The sins of the leaders not only rip the lives of the victims but they hit others as well—parents, spouses, family and friends and members of the congregation. Can a public apology really help? Will people forgive? Will hurt people trust again and reconcile? Will the apology be accepted and the leader restored to ministry? These are the questions I have been asking for years.
This is my third of three blogs on apologies. The public apology by Alan Chambers of Exodus International gained public attention. Many weighed in regarding, the controversial reparative therapy, the harm that was done, and the adequacy of the apology. The Chambers story from last week prompted these blogs-- about the apology event and effective apologies. But there’s more. I have counseled victims and spoken with family and friends about the powerful effects of clergy abuse. I have been appalled by the rapid restoration of people to leadership—why don’t people learn their lessons? Why are people so willing to listen to a few words of apology?
In 2001, I made a slight shift in careers from clinical psychologist to professor. In 2002, I began teaching research so I figured I should provide a credible example by doing some research. But what to study? I browsed scientific publications and forgiveness grabbed my attention. Great topic for a psychological scientist working at a Christian University. Even better, an old friend from school days was writing a lot about forgiveness —I met Ev Worthington when we had just started graduate work at the University of Missouri- Columbia. I got a research packet from Ev, searched for some unique variables and asked the question—how do people forgive fallen Christian leaders? How do they decide to keep them in the ministry despite serious offenses? Since then I’ve had the privilege of working with many talented colleagues on a variety of investigations.
How widespread is the problem of clergy abuse?
It’s hard to say. Only recently have victims spoken openly about their abuse as children. It might depend on who you ask. A group of us (2007) discovered that about 30%+ of undergraduates knew a pastor who had a problem that affected ministry and that sexual problems accounted for about 21-27% of the problems. But when Eloise Thomas and Kelley White (2008) asked people in churches, more than 60% reported knowledge of a pastor with a problem and most of the problems were sexual. We suspect that age made a difference. The longer you live and participate in a religious community, the higher the likelihood you will personally know someone who committed a serious offense as a leader.
Apologies, forgiveness, and restoration- what makes a difference?
In the first study, we presented different groups of people with a report of a pastor who had an affair with a member of the congregation. One group received the text of an elaborate apology and the other groups did not receive the apology. We also varied whether the pastor was a woman or a man. Gender made a difference. Men scored higher than women in feeling they could forgive the female pastor but women scored higher in forgiving a male pastor. However, the high forgiveness scores occurred for those who did not read an apology! What about restoration? Men were more willing than women to restore a pastor to ministry regardless of the pastor’s gender. An inadequate apology may be the culprit. But, apologies also draw attention to wrongdoing.
Now for study two. This time we looked at three characteristics of an apology by a male pastor who had an affair.
1. Admission- did the pastor admit he was wrong?
2. Excuses- did the pastor make excuses for what he did?
3. Responsibility- did the pastor take responsibility for what he did?
Women were more forgiving of a male pastor who took responsibility.
Men were more forgiving of a male pastor who did not take responsibility.
Taking responsibility was not a factor by itself- a person’s sex made the difference. Men and women respond differently.
Admitting guilt and making excuses did not make a difference in forgiveness.
Johanna Kirchhoff and her colleagues looked at 10 components of an apology to see what might be linked to forgiveness. They found that more complete apologies matter and some components are more important than others. In the context of one study, four of those features stood out:
- Emotions- showing remorse
- Admission- admitting fault, the offender said s/he was wrong
- Statement- for example actually saying, “I apologize”
- Explanation- attempting to explain what led to the offence
And what is the link between an apology and forgiveness? One possibility is that the apology reduces anger, which in turn promotes forgiveness.
I’m Sorry is rarely enough.
The other day I was buying luggage. The clerk offered a discount if I completed a form. The discounted sale did not process so she tried to call her office to correct the matter. Minutes seemed to become hours I’m exaggerating). Finally, she resolved the matter and apologized at least twice. That’s good enough. It wasn’t her fault. Saying “my bad” or “I’m sorry” can work for small, everyday mistakes but when it comes to serious offenses and public apologies, more details are needed for an apology to qualify as sincere. The effectiveness of any apology is likely to vary with the seriousness of the transgression, the age and sex of the listener, and efforts to repair the harm done. So, how did Alan Chambers do? What about Scott Pelley or Paula Deen? The chances are some secular or religious leader will apologize for something big in the near future. Apologies can help with feelings and promote forgiveness but reconciliation and restoration are other matters.
Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration
There’s so much more to this discussion but I will close this blog with a few notes about reducing confusion.
People mean different things by the terms forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.
I don’t like to quibble about definitions but some words make a difference.
Many people seem to think if you forgive someone you have to stay in a relationship. After all, if you forgave them why can’t you be friends?
That’s a potential set-up for serious abuse.
Similarly, forgiving a leader for a serious offense is not the same as restoring that leader to the same position so they can re-offend. It’s not just about clergy. It’s about anyone who has used their position to abuse another person sexually or in any other way.
Forgiveness is a good idea. Let go of the past and move forward—even if the offender does not ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is for the victim.
But reconciling requires trust. Show me that I can trust you.
And restoring a person to leadership requires evidence that the person will not commit another serious offense.
Then there’s restitution- you can’t bring people back from the dead. Some effects of harm are life-long. What qualifies as adequate reparations is an incredible challenge for people in conflict.
Apologies are important but any particular apology is only the beginning.
Flowers are rarely enough.
Flowers are rarely enough.
Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130. doi 10.1037/a0028092
Pop, J. L., Sutton, G.W., & Jones, E.G. (2009). Restoring pastors following a moral failure: The effects of self-interest and group influence, Pastoral Psychology, 57, 275-284. doi 10.1007/s11089-008-0162-x
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.). Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3 Online Link http://www.springerlink.com/content/ n11144j1655536l2/
Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53, 583-599. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4822-7
Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44.
Thomas, E. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious Leadership Failure: Forgiveness, Apology, and Restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327.
Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29.