With the recent spate of revelations about sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault being reported in the media, many people of conscience wonder exactly what the aggressors owe the people who were the targets of their hurtful behavior. There are a lot of components to the hurt that people may have suffered, but the most devastating effects are the destruction of their sense of self-confidence and safety, the shame, the guilt (always undeserved), and the damage to their reputation and social support systems. Simply keeping a secret like a sexual assault is destructive, but when added to shame, guilt, fear, and traumatic disruption of a life, it can be crippling.
Too often the offenders in our society (particularly those who are lawyered up well and/or are celebrities, or people with wealth and power) offer little or no apology at all. They deny, attack their accusers (in the media and in court), and issue non-apologies that diminish the experiences of their victims. But even when they recognize the need to take responsibility for their actions, their apologies ring hollow, because they focus on their own pain, or the betrayal felt by their wives or families, or their offending their fans, clients, employers, or the public. But their victims may only get the generic “I’m sorry” that everyone else hears, and receive no restorative efforts.
We can enable harm or facilitate healing
This is simply another form of violence against the personal integrity of people who have already been hurt and victimized unjustly. It is a further injustice. And if we accept those apologies – as employers, as families, as fans, or as the general public – we are participating in further injustice and harm to those people who have been harmed.
We have a responsibility to reject any “apology” that does not include a direct opportunity for the victim to confront the perpetrator (should he or she choose to do so), a safe opportunity for the victim to explain exactly what the perpetrator has done to them and how their lives have been affected, and the opportunity to receive an honest and non-defensive acknowledgment of the hurt the offender has caused and the offender’s responsibility for its effects in perpetuity. There is no “asking for forgiveness” and “hoping they will get past it.”
The religious angle
Much of our response as a society to assaults on people in the United States is influenced by our religious tradition as a majority-Christian country. We have conflated “sin” with injury and harm, and so we confuse “forgiveness” with justice. And, to make things worse, we take the power for forgiveness away from victims and reserve it for God, however we may conceive of God. And, to make things still worse, this is especially the case when sexual abuse and assault takes place under the auspices of religious organizations. This reduces the victim, and elevates the perpetrator, to the same level …that of wayward children who need “God’s love” to attain “healing.” It robs the victim of any hope of justice, of the ability to hold the perpetrator (and the church, in many cases) accountable.
I heard a radio interview today with Jennifer Johnson of the University of Washington Department of Gender Studies, in which she presented the case of Andy Savage, a minister at a large evangelical Christian church in Memphis, and his handling of revelations from a former youth ministry member who was raped by him while on a church event as a teenager. The victim, Jules Woodson, kept silent for many years but finally publicly asked him to meet and personally apologize to her. Instead, he had his current pastor orchestrate and lead a sort of public ceremony of confession, which drew sympathy and applause, but insulted and degraded Ms. Woodson by ignoring her request and minimizing his violent approach to her as a person. Indeed, the usual victim-blaming was evident throughout the process and the term “flirtatious environment” was used to try to transfer blame from him to her and the situation.
I would encourage you to read Jennifer Johnson’s article on the situation. She uses some arguments about biblical rightness and wrongness that may be lost on a non-theologian, but are nevertheless very valid points. We, as a human community, are entitled to worship and believe whatever we wish. But as a human community, we must hold ourselves and each other accountable for any and all violations of each other’s rights to live safely, with dignity and respect, and free from hurt, shame, and sexual trauma of all kinds. This is not necessarily just a legal mandate, though we do need laws (and enforcement) that helps keep people safe as much as possible.
Justice as a part of the social contract
Beyond our legal protections and recourses, as a society, we must put the protection (and, when needed, the restoration) of rights, dignity, and respect as our highest priority. This must be a human priority of a civilized society – above religious propriety, above the reputations of the well-off, well-known, and well-connected, and above the beliefs of any group about judgment and forgiveness being reserved for God.
The area of sexuality, with its heavy cultural baggage of male power and privilege, is perhaps the most challenging area in which we need to hold ourselves to high standards. Many of use were raised to think that rape can be made light-hearted, funny, or easily brushed off as guy stuff or locker-room talk. The point is that no one should ever have to suffer what any victim of sexual violence of any sort suffers – whether the offense is as mild as catcalls or as brutal as rape at gunpoint.