Apology: Power in Purpose

Never make a defense or apology before you be accused.
King Charles I

By now you have certainly heard of the tragic death of Notre Dame student, Declan Sullivan.   During a football practice in inclement weather, Declan was videotaping the activity from an elevated hydraulic lift as a student worker employed by the university football team. High winds caused the lift to topple dropping Declan to his death. Should he have been allowed to work in such a dangerous situation? Was he trained in the use of the equipment? Were state or safety worker safety laws violated. Who’s at fault? Who should pay for this tragedy? Investigations and potential lawsuits may ultimately answer these questions.

In our litigious “blame/shame” culture, an unexpected statement to the Notre Dame university community was issued by its President, Fr. John Jenkins. (See, Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2010)  Despite the high likelihood that such a statement might equate to legal liability, Rev. Jenkins apologized for Declan’s death and accepted responsibility on behalf of the University less than a week after the tragedy.

What’s unusual is the fact that he wasn’t forced to.  The investigations are ongoing.  No lawsuit had been filed.  No legal blame had been determined.  Some would declare the move foolish.  Many have questioned the university’s motives.  Others have proclaimed the apology empty and devoid of meaning or authenticity.  Most simply don’t understand why an apology would be offered so soon and so publicly.  Maybe the passage of time will shed light on these concerns.

The fascinating effect of the president’s apology is that it was so unexpected it is inexplicable to the commentators.  Why should something as genuine as an apology be suspect?  Could it be that accepting responsibility is so foreign to our culture’s values that someone who chooses to do so is suspected of improper motives or worse, lunacy?

The reality is that when an apology is provided in authentic ways at appropriate times, the doorway to reconciliation and healing is opened.  Apology offered too soon can appear manipulative.  Expressions of regret provided to the wrong audience in the wrong way can be mistrusted.  However, genuine apology is a powerful tool to be used for proper purposes in order to start the dialog. Constructive conversation can begin between parties in conflict following the offer of an honest expression of regret.

In health care about half the states have “apology laws” which prohibit the offensive use of apologies as evidence in a subsequent lawsuit when offered by a health care provider to families or patients who believe they have suffered injury or adverse medical outcomes.  Legal “cover” for apologies can go a long way to incentivize expressions of regret.  However, many hospitals and health care systems are willing to run the risk of “doing the right thing” even if not legally protected by state law.  The data generated from these practices indicates that liability is lessened, not increased, by a legally unprotected apology.  The power of a purposeful apology can accomplish what the law cannot:  dignity, dialog and disposition.

You might recall that Charles I of England (who refused to apologize before accused) was responsible for the temporary abolition of the English monarchy.  His defiant refusal to accept responsibility for two civil wars and his arrogant use of power to achieve his own selfish purposes (without apology) led to his trial, conviction and execution for treason.  As a result, the Commonwealth of England (a republic form of government) was established by Oliver Cromwell and lasted for a brief period before the English monarchy was restored.

Thank you Fr. Jenkins for reminding us of what we all know innately:  refusal to accept responsibility before being forced to do so deprives apology of any meaning whatever.  Perhaps, our society can benefit from your example of apologizing before accusations force us to.

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3 Responses to Apology: Power in Purpose

  1. Deborah says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    Recently I received an angry email requesting an apology from me… It has given me the opportunity to reflect not only on the triggering event, but also on the subject of apology itself. Your thoughtful post adds to the dialogue I am having with myself…

  2. William Dempsey says:

    Experts have said on the Internet that the Notre Dame student employee was covered by the Indiana Workers Compensation law and that accordingly the recovery will be limited to a small death benefit. If this is so, then contrary to what is said in this essay Fr. Jenkins’s statement will not produce a “high likelihood”, or indeed any likelihood, “of legal liability.” In such circumstances, why should there be anything surprising about this, and how can it be a model for action when legal liability is at stake? Or are these experts wrong?

    • lcmlarry says:

      Great questions. However, in addition to workers compensation which is a statutory limitation on recovery by the injured employee, there are also liabilities which can be imposed by state and federal occupational safety and health agencies, civil torts filed by those who witnessed the traumatic event and potential wrongful death actions brought by others. These additional liabilities are not limited by state workers compensation law and would also be impacted by an apology and acceptance of responsibility for the death by the university. The courage is still remarkable to this writer.

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