Polanski, the Pope, and the Power of Apology

Catholics know how to apologize. “Forgive me, Father,” they say, “for I have sinned.” Though a confession isn’t an apology per se, it does contain many of the same ingredients, coming as it does from a place of feeling truly sorry. There’s the straightforward admission of guilt, the full acceptance of responsibility. The use of honest, direct language in regard to what the confessor did—none of that “if I hurt you, I regret it” pussyfooting around. And there’s the submission of the sinner to the aggrieved. All in all, these words show that Catholics understand the business of making amends. Which makes Pope Benedict’s inept apology to victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy all the more amazing.

Since March, when the most recent crisis erupted, the pope has done little more than soft-shoe around a real mea culpa. His pastoral letter at the time, addressed to the Catholics of Ireland, included the words “I am truly sorry,” but it lacked what many of the church’s victims needed to hear: an acknowledgment of a cover-up, a full acceptance of responsibility. In May, with the church’s image covered in mud, the pope twirled a little closer to the truth. He told reporters that the problem was “the sin inside the church,” a reference, for the first time, vague as it was, that officials had concealed the abuse. Still, for many victims, it was not enough.

Just as the pope did his dance, yet another apology underachiever surfaced. Roman Polanski, the acclaimed director who fled the U.S. three decades ago after pleading guilty to having sex with a minor and who now faces possible extradition from Switzerland, broke his long silence. In a statement released in May, Polanski said he wanted to address himself directly to the public, “without any intermediaries and in my own words.” He went on to say, “I can remain silent no longer!” Here was a man—note the exclamation point—who really needed to get something off his chest. Perhaps he had something he wanted to say to the victim, which is how he referred to her in the statement. (In 1977, Polanski was accused of plying a 13-year-old girl with drugs and alcohol before raping and sodomizing her. He took a plea deal, admitting to unlawful sex with a minor, and fled the U.S. before sentencing.) Well, it turned out that the words burning him up were not for her. The brave filmmaker needed to unburden himself about the injustice he’s suffered. To be fair, the judge in Polanski’s case did appear to commit improprieties, according to the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. But, really, is it only about you?

What difference can words even make to a victim? A big one, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist and author of On Apology. Lazare believes apologies are moral events that have real power to heal. They are built into the human condition. Primates say “I’m sorry” nonverbally by stroking and holding the one they’ve offended. He says that victims of sexual abuse, particularly by a person of authority, such as a priest, are often left wondering why it happened and if it was their fault. A decent apology accepts all the responsibility for what happened, so it can begin to undo the humiliation that comes with thinking you had something to do with the awful thing that happened. “It changes your image of who you are. It can restore your self-esteem.” But in the instance of the church, an apology from the individual abuser can go only so far. Since the church sets, enforces, and covers up policies that harm, the pope has to speak out too, Lazare says, to enable the recovery.

Even if the pope does come up with a better apology, it may be too little too late for many of the church’s victims. While an apology freely given can be quite restorative, saying “I’m sorry” largely in response to a P.R. crisis is not, says David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “I think an apology from the pope for many victims is meaningless,” he says. But for other victims, a solid papal apology might bring some sense of hope that the abuse will stop. Clohessy says that almost every victim he’s spoken with mentions in their first conversation that they just want to make sure the abuser can’t hurt anyone else. Knowing that their suffering is going to make a difference is helpful to victims. “Prevention is crucial to healing,” he says.

In contrast to the Catholic church’s problem, Polanski’s case had appeared to be an isolated event. Until, that is, several weeks ago when a 42-year-old British actress came forward with her own accusations of abuse. Charlotte Lewis said that when she was 16, Polanski abused her “in the worst possible way.” She said she had lived with the effects of Polanski’s behavior since it occurred. “All I want is justice,” she said. According to her attorney, Lewis has provided evidence to Los Angeles County prosecutors. Since the news of the alleged abuse broke, Polanski, notably, has been able to keep his silence.

As for the pope, there’s talk that another attempt at a decent apology may be forthcoming in mid-June at a Vatican celebration of…priests. Clohessy’s expectations, though, are low. “He seems incapable of saying ‘horrific child sex crimes’ and ‘cover-up.’ ” Here is what Lazare says an effective apology must include: an acknowledgment that the offense was wrong, that it was not the fault of the victim, that the two sides share the same moral values, and that there is a promise for the future that generates trust. At this point, that last one’s going to be tricky.