Thursday, June 27, 2013

Apologies Following Clergy Abuse

Pope Francis Apologises for Clergy Sex 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?

What happened?
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.

Magic words
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.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g.,  AMAZON

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 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.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Effective Apologies

How Effective are Apologies?
Christian Apologizes to LGBTQ Community: Part 2

Geoff W. Sutton

In my previous post I provided a link to the apology by Alan Chambers of ExodusInternational to the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) community. In this blog, I will review some research related to the effectiveness of apologies. It is no secret that some Christian groups have protested against activities of the LGBTQ community, including the issue of same-sex marriage and the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to admit gay youth as scouts. Since most Americans continue to identify as Christian, it is easy to guess that most members of the US LGBTQ community identify as Christians now or did so at one point in their life. Given the prominent protests by Christian groups, it is not surprising that members of the LGBTQ community view Christians as judgmental, hateful, and hypocritical when they preach a gospel of love, compassion, and forgiveness. For many, two orientations are in conflict:  Religious orientation and sexual orientation.

A psychological perspective on morality
Drawing on the work of psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, which he nicely summarized in the Righteous Mind, non-fundamentalist Christians (sometimes called progressive or liberal) are likely to view LGBTQ issues from a framework that emphasizes the commandment to love one’s neighbor (Mark 12:31) and concern for the harm done to members of the LGBTQ community. They are also likely to care deeply about issues of justice and fairness.

Christians with a fundamentalist worldview emphasize a conservative view of biblical texts. In this view, God plainly condemns homosexuality for all people for all time (think Sodom, Genesis 19 and St. Paul, Romans 1, etc.). Haidt’s research suggests that conservative views of morality rest on at least five moral foundations. In addition to the harm and justice issues emphasized by more liberal thinkers, conservatives care about loyalty, respect for authority, and matters of purity and holiness. Any changes in social policy that fail to recognize biblical teachings are causes for alarm as they harm traditional views of marriage and family, betray God and thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teaching, disrespect the authority of God’s word and designated Christian leaders, and countermand teachings about sexual purity and holiness.

How effective are apologies?
The twin combination of an apology by an offender and the ability of a victim to take another perspective promote forgiveness. Some public apologies seem to have been helpful in promoting forgiveness and reconciliation between groups. For example:
  • Pope John Paul II apologized to many groups hurt by actions of the Catholic Church ( link)
  • American leaders apologized to Japanese-Americans for internment in camps during World War II ( link)

Not all apologies are effective. A 2007 study by Ferguson and others did not find an apology by the IRA helpful in Northern Ireland. Also Struthers and others (2008) reported negative effects of an apology on 
forgiveness by victims.

Chick-fil-A Effect? 
Almost a year ago, the Chick-fil-A brouhaha occurred. The company president, Dan Cathy opposed gay marriage (huffington post). Protests were organized by the LGBTQ community. Popular conservative Mike Huckabee responded by encouraging his followers to support Chick-fil-A (Huckabee’s post). Ironically, Kayla Jordan, a psychology student at a conservative university was working with my friend Ev Worthington and me to conduct a study on the effects of an apology offered by a Christian to the LGBTQ community. The apology wasn’t helpful in promoting forgiveness but was it because of the unforeseen Chick-fil-A national news event? We weren’t sure so we reran the study with another sample. Still not much effect – but there was a difference. This time the participants were less positive than during the summer. This Spring Kayla presented her findings at a regional conference hosted by Creighton University. As she sat down, a professor leaned toward her and declared, “I’m blown away!” The professor had been involved in services to LGBTQ students at a major university and was stunned that a Christian would even consider an apology to the LGBTQ community. Kayla’s article will be published this summer in the Journal of Christianity and Psychology.

Five Tips for Effective Apologies
Some apologies can make things worse or simply be ineffective. Likely, public apologies by one group toward another are far more complex than those between two people. We do know that some characteristics of apologies work on the interpersonal level. Here’s five tips:
  • The person recognizes they hurt someone else
  • They evidently feel remorse- emotion is important
  • They take responsibility for the harm
  • They seek to make amends—to repair the damage
  • They explain why they did what they did without making excuses

In my next blog, I will write more about effective apologies.


Ferguson, N., Binks, E., Roe, M. D., Brown, J., Adams, T., Cruise, S., & Lewis, C. (2007). The IRA Apology of 2002 and forgiveness in Northern Ireland's troubles: A cross-national study of printed media. Peace and Conflict: Journal Of Peace Psychology, 13, 93-113. doi:10.1037/h0094026

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Jordan, K., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Sutton, G. W. (in press). Effects on Forgiveness and Attitudes toward Christians of Self-Identified LGBTQ People to Hearing a Public Apology from a Christian and to Taking the Perspective of the Church. Journal of Christianity and Psychology

Struthers, C. W., Eaton, J., Santelli, A. G., Uchiyama, M., & Shirvani, N. (2008). The effects of attributions of intent and apology on forgiveness: When saying sorry may not help the story. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 983-992.

Comments welcome but please keep them constructive.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Christian Apologizes to LGBTQ Community

Christian Apologizes to LGBTQ Community: 
Are Public Apologies Helpful?
Geoff W. Sutton

Alan Chambers of Exodus International issued a detailed apology to the LGBTQ community. Exodus International offered a “cure” for homosexuality. Chambers admitted that a lot of people were hurt by their “reparative therapy” interventions. In a detailed text, Chambers accepted responsibility. In his statement and in response to others (e.g., The Atlantic) he repeated, “I’m Sorry” for the hurt and pain.

Here’s a quote from his apology,

Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine. 
You can find the full text at

So how do people respond?
Some have told me "Wow" and "Incredible!" Others are skeptical.
You can find a lot of reaction to an online interview Chambers gave to The Atlantic – there were more than 300 comments when I checked in.
Many news sources are covering the story but you will find a special report on God and Gays at the Oprah Winfrey Network site, OWN.

Questions abound
We probably won’t know the lasting effects of the apology for some time.
       Will this apology help some people heal?
   Will it change attitudes and reduce hostility toward sexual minorities?
   Will this apology promote forgiveness and reconciliation?
   Will the apology help Christians love those with different sexual orientations? 
   Will the apology help Christians voice disagreements in respectful ways?

     More to come
      I will have more comments about apologies in the near future. Ironically, one of my students, Kayla Jordan completed two studies on the effects of an apology by a Christian toward members of the LGBTQ community. These were completed in 2012 and the article is scheduled for publication this summer.

Read more about sexuality, morality, and Christian cultures in A House Divided available from the publisher PICKWICK and other stores e.g., AMAZON

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How Forgiveness Promotes Hope

How Forgiveness Promotes Hope

Geoff W. Sutton

            Weddings, birthdays, reunions and summer holidays bring families together. Visions of BBQs, swimming, and fireworks dance in the heads of children. Not all fireworks decorate the sky. Some explode.  Amidst the laughter and joy, some fume about slights and barely veiled insults. Others recall serious hurts and pain. “It’s best to avoid the stress,” some say, as they vote with their feet and find comfort elsewhere. Reviewing past hurts keeps our energy and focus in the past. The past saps our ability to enjoy the present or make plans for the future. The pain of the past is like a storm cloud in front of the sunshine of hope.

            Forgiveness is a way of letting go of the past and promoting hope. I and my colleagues like Ev Worthington have conducted research with hundreds of people. When we measure forgiveness and hope we invariably find the more forgiving people are also the more hopeful ones. Why is forgiveness related to hope? I think it’s because forgiveness allows us to let go of the past. The mental state of holding a grudge keeps us mired in the hurts and offenses of days, weeks, or even years ago. Until we let go –stop reviewing the old hurts—we can’t develop hope. Hope is a forward looking orientation. Hope is an attitude of anticipation like the child jumping up and down anticipating the fun at some adventure park. Life’s an adventure when hope abounds. Forgiveness is one pathway to the future.

            There are many religious and secular books about how to forgive. A common sequence involves 4 steps. Forgiveness is as hard as ABCD.

  • A  Assess the harm.  Mostly, forgiveness works best when we fully assess the harm done rather than ignore it.
  • B Develop the Belief that you can forgive. Take steps to reduce the power of that hurt to keep popping up in our minds. Psychologists offer several ideas like writing about the event, considering other perspectives, and drawing on spiritual resources like prayer and meditation on divine forgiveness.
  • C Commit to forgive.  At some point we need to make a decision – commit to letting it go. Sometimes it helps to tell a trusted friend or write it down. 
  • D  Do something to remember.  No doubt life events will bring back an old memory but that’s time to take action and do something to remember, “I let that go.” If the offender is alive, perhaps a smile or good word is in order. 

Sometimes the past is overwhelming and professional counseling is the best approach.

Forgiveness promotes hope
 freeing us for the adventures of life.

Landmark for Peace Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Geoff W. Sutton