For Whose Benefit is an Apology?

There are two main parties to an apology: the offender (the one who apologizes) and the victim. There may also be a third party, an indirect victim of the offense. So when the offender apologizes, who benefits?

In a Pittsburgh court a few years ago, two men were sentenced after pleading guilty for their roles in stealing numerous rare books and artifacts from the Carnegie Library’s rare book room over a period of years. At the start of their sentencing hearing, they each apologized – to their families, to the Library, and to the city of Pittsburgh.

But the president and director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Mary Frances Cooper, said, “Sometimes victims say they want an apology. We do not want an apology. Any apology from these thieves would be meaningless. They are only sorry that we discovered what they did.”

Does it do any good for an offender to apologize when the victim doesn’t want to hear it?

Speaker: An apology may be for the benefit of the offender, to restore the offender to community and “to regain moral integrity.” Jennifer Gerarda Brown, “The Role of Apology in Negotiation,” 87 Marquette Law Review 665, 666-667 (2004). From a spiritual perspective, Christians are exhorted to confess their sins, both to God (I John 1:9) and to one another (James 5:16). These commands are not conditioned on the victim’s interest or acceptance; they are essential to restoring the relationship between the offender and God.

Recipient: A good apology can be a tremendous benefit to the victim recipient. It can assure the recipient that it was the offender, and not the victim, who bore responsibility for the harm that occurred. It can remove the obstacle hindering a good relationship and offer the potential for a better future.

Community: The community of which victim and offender are a part may also benefit from a good apology. While not suffering direct loss, the community suffers the rupture of the relationship and may need the apology to begin restoration. Even if the victim cannot fully accept the apology, the community may benefit from it.

When convicted criminals apologize at the start of their sentencing hearing, we can question their sincerity and assume it’s to procure a lighter sentence. But it could also be their last best chance to declare publicly their remorse. If these men are to recover from their crimes and regain any moral integrity, they must acknowledge the full extent of the wrong they did, and repent of it – whether or not the victims accept it. A person who is truly repentant will seek to learn what more needs to be done in order for a victim to accept the apology.

It may take time for a victim to accept an apology. Victims may first need to absorb the full extent of the harm done. In the Pittsburgh case, the Library director is apparently not seeing remorse, and she probably would like full restitution, before she can accept the apology. But even if she cannot accept it now, it may still help her that the offenders expressed it. It may be the little ray of light in the darkness of her pain, that offers hope.

Even if the victim cannot receive the apology, it may benefit the wider community that was negatively affected by the wrong. If these thieves are ever to be restored to their families and communities (in which they’re living, since they received only probation with no incarceration), they will need to repent fully. The community may be currently skeptical, but there may have been some small bit of satisfaction in hearing these men publicly state their remorse and regret.

A good apology is never wasted.