It is OK to say sorry in Church abuse cases

Recent church abuse cases have often ended up involving both lawyers and insurance companies. When such a legal process begins, communication between a victim and the church institution that harmed them has normally ceased. This is because of the common understanding that any apology or expression of regret by a church body is tantamount to an admission of liability. Thus, a victim such as Gilo, whose abuse was a matter of historical record, faced blanking and unanswered letters the moment that he sought legal redress for his abuse. An institution like the church is surely one where we would hope to be able to see an equal concern for justice and love in operation. From recent cases, not just Gilo’s, the legal response has been to shut down and try to shut out a victim who seeks a remedy from the courts.

According to an article written by legal expert, Professor Dominic Regan in the New Law Journal, this assumption that an apology to a victim is equivalent to an admission of liability is completely wrong. His actual word is ‘tosh’. There is a passage in what is known as a Compensation Act of 2006 which makes the following statement: An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty. These few words are, according to the article, a restatement of existing law. But for people like Gilo and others who have experienced abuse from the Church, they are of enormous importance. Many people would have their sufferings considerably relieved if only the offending body felt itself at the start able to express regret, sorrow or apology. In the case of the Church, such an expression of regret might include the offering of pastoral care. There is a famous case of two children who died while on holiday in Greece by carbon monoxide poisoning. The company involved, ‘for legal reasons’, refused to apologise thus making the acute suffering of the parents far worse. Similar situations occur in medical negligence cases. A victim of a medical accident, by being shut off or treated as an enemy throughout the legal process suffers as much because of this blanking as from the original event. What the law is saying very clearly is that this kind of treatment is not justified by what the law in fact states.

It is hard to imagine how much extra suffering is endured because many institutions seem to be incapable ‘for legal reasons’ to say sorry. I mentioned last week the example of the social worker battling with the authorities of the Benedictine order. These men were presumably acting under the legal advice that to offer regret or apology to a victim was tantamount to laying themselves open to compensation claims. This misreading of the law enhanced the suffering of many survivors and all this additional stress is little short of scandalous. One wants the Compensation Act 2006 to be compulsory reading for every legal advisor acting for the Church in abuse cases. If ‘sorry’ is allowed to happen right at the beginning of the process of seeking justice, then some of the cases might never need to come to court. The Church as a body should be the one institution wanting to demonstrate a passion for truth, justice and love. It should never have to supress its expression of love because of the say-so of lawyers who, in this case, are not up to date with what the Law actually states.

In the article that I am quoting, Dominic Regan mentions a claimant who suffered a near fatal industrial injury in 2001. It resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and this was by far the worst part of the injury. The initial absence of an apology from his employer made him angry and stressed with the consequence of poor relationships with his family as well as a drink problem. It took a court case for an apology to be forthcoming. Meanwhile the victim of the accident had died without ever hearing the apology. The small word ‘sorry’ would have made a tremendous difference for this particular individual. No doubt many church cases might have better and healthier outcomes if the institutions involved could feel able to apologise and do what they can to help without the fear of presumed liability.

It is a matter of deep regret that the bulk of the lawyers who represent churches are simply ignorant of this particular piece of law. I am thinking of the lawyers representing Trinity Church Brentwood. They repeatedly shut out victims and made it impossible for the church to make more than feeble statements of apology. We have course no means of knowing in this case what the church really thought about abused former members. Other churches are in the business of robust apology and self-examination. Gilo, whose case against the Church has been mentioned several times in different posts, seems to have met plenty of lawyers and insurance companies who seemed interested only in limiting liability for their clients. I would love to know whether Safeguarding Officers and Bishops up and down the country are aware that it is okay to say sorry. It will not make legal problems further down the line.

It would be right to say that having read this article by lawyer for others in his profession, I am left feeling angry. I am angry that something of such fundamental importance to the conduct of abuse cases in the Church seems to have been overlooked for so long. How many people who are the victims of church abuse have also been left uncared for and outside the orbit of pastoral care because of this legal ignorance? In this case the Law is providing a way that encourages and makes possible compassion, open communication and forgiveness- all Christian virtues. So this blog piece is saying in summary: it is okay to love, show compassion as well as apologise to someone who has been wronged without being accused of accepting legal liability. The Law in short allows us to be compassionate human beings trying to deal with a situation of suffering and pain.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

3 thoughts on “It is OK to say sorry in Church abuse cases

  1. Great. Who’s going to tell the Bishops? It’s like health and safety. Every time there’s some sort of scandal about an idiocy, the H&S executive say, “Nothing to do with us, we don’t say that”. People think there’s a problem. They don’t check, and they’re afraid of being sued. How would one devise a system that checked up on what Bishops do?

  2. Good question Athena. It would seem that the legal minds who advise the church over the past (at least) 12 years have been wilfully or deliberately ignorant of a vital point of law. I am no lawyer but have a relative who is. This single sentence, if applied by lawyers could have saved an enormous amount of suffering to victims. Gilo who is doing an enormous amount to get the church to wake up to enforce proper safeguarding will no doubt read this and perhaps help to spread it among his contacts. He seems to be gaining powerful allies and there is a momentum building which will force the church into adopting responsible but compassionate behaviour . The sentence I have quoted allows the church to behave compassionately towards its victims rather than fight them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.