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The national apology 11 years on

  • 12 February 2019


As we approach a federal election it is hard to think of a more encouraging action by any government during the last 20 years than the apology made by the then prime minister to Indigenous Australians who had been removed from their parents.

Much has been said about that apology. It is worth reflecting more generally on why apologies properly made are so gratifying, and what qualities they must have in order to be proper.

Apologies are encouraging because they embody a decency that we long for. We try to build it into the lives of our children, but often fear that it is being lost in society. Apologies affirm a shared sense of right and wrong by which we can judge our lives and which we are called to pass on to our descendants

When we are teaching children a right way to live, we want them to learn three magic words: please, thank you, and sorry. If they make these words central in their lives and mean them, they will treat everything in their lives as a gift not as an entitlement, and they will be well equipped to form and heal relationships. If their lives are lacking in the reality of the three words they will be lacking in humanity. Of the three words sorry is the lubricant. It acknowledges the shared inevitability of failure to act well, and enables fresh beginnings.  

Apologies, of course, come in a range of shapes, from children dragged in by the ear to say sorry with rebellious eyes, to light-fingered gangsters sprung by the Big Man. Some are made out of love, others out of fear.

When frequent Confession was a central feature in Catholic life the subtleties of apology were analysed in detail. The importance of apologising face to face was insisted on. The confession was understood to be made to God through the priest. The embarrassment involved was argued to contribute to its depth.

Genuine regret — contrition — was also required. Its highest form, perfect contrition, was motivated by love for the person injured. Imperfect contrition was motivated by concern for oneself, expressed in shame or guilt at not living up to one's expectations or in fear of the consequences. Less discussed were the pathologies that might lead people to confess often: obsessiveness or seeking divine license to continue to act badly, for example.


"If learning to say please, thank you and sorry are the