Apologies and language

Reading Anthony’s contribution to Public Enquiry today brings to mind the ways in which anger, sorrow and emotion are represented in Irish political and public discourse. Following the publication of the Ryan report in May, the pages of national newspapers were replete with letters and articles ranging from the angry, the disillusioned to the plain daft. People were and are very angry about what the Orders and Congregations did and did not do when faced with the abuse of children placed in their care.

There were a few raw days and weeks around my own workplace. In some ways, at least if you were to judge by mass media coverage, responses to the Ryan report and its contents have been placed in a kind of netherworld where all that can be said and done are reduced to formal bureaucratic clichés. We need ‘large debates’, ‘much soul searching’ and adequate responses. We as communities of people living in Ireland deserve much more than putting all of that grief and sorrow in a box, placing it in the top drawer, repeatedly returning to it and saying “oh yes, I really must do something about that.”

It strikes me though that in all of these responses, including Anthony’s reworking of John Cooney’s piece in a recent review of his Humbert Summer school, that there is a gulf between what sorry means to some and not to others. There is a real power about what Michael O’Brien would like to see happen as acts of “repentance”. But I do not share Anthony’s pessimism in stating that:

…he [Michael] will not see justice and nothing will be done to prevent such events happening again.

When Orders and Congregations say sorry, is that the same as when we say sorry to a friend for abusing their trust or when we do not do something when we said we would? What does an ‘institutional sorry’ look like? How do slow-responding and unwieldy institutions make amends for past wrongs and when apologies are issued, how are they taken by those afflicted?  I do not believe that John Cooney “hit the nail on the head ” when he contrived a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy by Maynooth and Merrion Square. An approach to the truth is much more mundane and everyday than we might possibly imagine.

Seeking repentance for wrong doing is served by saying sorry but for people like Michael O’Brien, it is not enough. Do apologies lose their private and emotional power when publicly declared? I’m asking the question.