On October 27, 2010, Declan Sullivan, a student at the University of Notre Dame, was killed when a hydraulic lift from which he was videotaping the Notre Dame football team practice, collapsed. Within days, with investigators just beginning their work and lawyers warning of potential liability, Notre Dame University President Rev. John Jenkins issued a statement of apology in which he said, in part:
There is no greater sadness for a university community than the death of one of its students under any circumstances. Yet this loss is more devastating, for Declan died in a tragic accident while in our care. For that, I am profoundly sorry. We are conducting an investigation and we must be careful not to pre-judge its results, but I will say this: Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe. We at Notre Dame — and ultimately I, as President — are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.
Apologies come in all shapes and sizes. There is the “I deeply regret” apology where the apologizer connects the with the consequence of his actions but does not actually accepting blame for the act itself. Then there’s the “mistakes were made” apology, that acknowledges that something wasn’t done right by someone, but does not accept responsibility on the part of a specific person for a specific action. There is the vacuous apology extended to “those who misunderstood me” and the equally hollow apology directed to those of you “who feel that way”. Then there is the “I’m sorry, but … apology that simply shifts blame to someone or someplace else. And lastly, there is the “I’m sorry I got caught” apology which is, of course, no apology at all.
Some apologies are the stuff of legend. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s non-apology apology in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal? And then there was was the Mel Gibson apology after his anti semitic tirade following a DUI arrest; the Tiger Woods’ apology after word of his multiple affairs and Kramer’s apology after his racial tirade in a comedy nightclub; or Chris Brown’s apology for beating up his girlfriend Rihanna and Kanye West’s apology for interrupting Taylor Swift at the CMT Awards. This political season alone has brought us a rash of new apologies: Todd Akin, a Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, for his reference to “legitimate rape” and his suggestion that it does not lead to pregnancy; Richard Mourdock, another candidate for U.S. Senator, for his suggestion that either rape was God’s will (according to the interpretation of some, though not me) or, that a pregnancy occasioned by rape, is God’s will. And then just last night, in my home state of South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley’s attempted apology upon word that 3.7 million social security numbers may have been hacked from South Carolina Department of Revenue web servers.
All of these apologies are memorable. Only a few were meaningful. A good apology is powerful in part because it is sincere. A good apology is completely genuine. It accepts full responsibility and does not attempt to shift blame. It speaks of repentance and tries to make amends. It is timely given and given with no expectations. But perhaps the real power of an apology, appropriately given, is that it can mark both an end as well as a beginning — an end to active conflict and a beginning to the long process of reconciliation, redemption, and forgiveness. And, ultimately, healing.