When is an apology meaningful?

Earlier today I took part in a Facebook discussion about “apologies”, in the context of the British government’s decision to prohibit blood donations from people who had, or ever had, M.E., in which someone suggested that it’s too late to protect the public from transmission of M.E. in the blood supply and that there should be “an acknowledgement and an apology for those of us who have at times felt that we are losing our minds (because of the health professionals and not the illness as they say)”. This apparently refers to all the health professionals who told M.E. sufferers in the very recent past that their illness was psychological and not physical, when ample scientific evidence suggests otherwise. However, in my view, this is not the kind of circumstance in which an apology is even meaningful.

Apologies tend to be sought in the case of historical injustices, such as the Atlantic slave trade and the Armenian genocide. Nobody is alive today who bears any personal responsibility for either, although some companies and some countries profited from the slave trade and it can be argued that they were never made to compensate their victims. So it was appropriate, for example, for Ken Livingstone (the former mayor of London) to offer an apology on behalf of London and its institutions for its role, as might also be the case for other cities such as Bristol and Liverpool. As for reparations, it is too late to offer them, not only because nobody alive today remembers or experienced slavery, but because of other factors such as not knowing who exactly suffered what and who to compensate. It would be more worthwhile to compensate for the racial injustices of more recent times.

Some of the scandals that have provoked political apologies are less appropriate because they are about people who are still alive as, in many cases, are the perpetrators. A typical example is the “stolen children” scandal in Australia. The former Prime Minister was widely praised for, literally, saying “sorry” to those affected, but this does not actually compensate the victims, many of whom were separated from their families (painful enough in itself) and subjected to forced labour and abuse. Similarly, hardly anyone in South Africa who carried out atrocities under Apartheid were prosecuted; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission simply required that they tell what they did in return for immunity from prosecution for torture, rape, murder and many other crimes. One could argue that this eased the peaceful transition from Apartheid to democracy, but it also meant a lot of people getting away with murder.

On the other hand, the Catholic church has not been able to get away with offering a mere apology for the abuse of children in the institutions it ran in Ireland, Australia and elsewhere in the 20th century, particularly in the period in Ireland from independence to the mid-1970s where the cruelty and sexual abuse was well-documented. The fight has been more about compensation, about making sure that perpetrators are kept away from children and about getting rid of bishops and other senior clergy who covered up abuse than about prosecuting individual abusers. Some of the victims are dissatisfied with the way the compensation awards have been extracted, particularly as the Irish taxpayer funded half of it, meaning the victims are partly funding the compensation. However, in the Irish case, society generally was partly responsible; many people knew the abuse was going on and chose to gossip or stay quiet rather than raise their voices.

As someone who suffered physical abuse while at boarding school myself, I generally support prosecution of those responsible, and especially those responsible for sexual abuse, and I do not favour showing leniency on the grounds that the perpetrator is old and infirm. They are probably only as infirm and vulnerable as those they abused, after all. If justice had caught up with them when they were in their forties or fifties, they would not have been shown mercy, unless it was deemed to be “too long ago” or dirt was kicked up about the character of the victims, such as that they were unruly and needed discipline, or that we can’t judge a previous generation by the standards of this one (a preposterous argument — we are talking about the 70s and 80s, and the notion of children having rights — and certainly the right not to be abused — is much older than that). These people lived out their healthy lives as free men and women and so, if in their decrepitude, they are brought to book, it’s the prison’s responsibility to make sure that they are as well-kept as possible, much as they had the same responsibility to their victims. If the prison fails, too bad. If they die in prison, because they survived so long in the outside world that they were infirm when the law caught up with them, too bad.

And these prosecutions were for abuse of mostly healthy children. It becomes all the worse when social workers drag a paralysed child out of his home, and medical staff subject him to various abuses including catapulting him out of a wheelchair and throwing him into a swimming pool as these would, supposedly, make him move. They didn’t, and they had to fish him out of the pool before he drowned. Similarly, when a young girl is admitted to a psychiatric ward in good faith, but then put through exercises she is incapable of doing, humiliated and sexually abused, to the point where she also becomes paralysed, she loses her speech, cannot eat or drink and becomes permanently bedridden, and is still in that state sixteen years later. How many other abuses happened that were this dreadful is not clear, but many patients record being disbelieved and treated as if they were malingering, a mere nuisance, and being put in completely inappropriate places such as geriatric and AIDS wards (as noted in Shattered: Life with ME by Lynn Michell).

To my knowledge, nobody has ever been brought to book for these abuses and no compensation has ever been paid, and it begs the question as to why not, because most of the victims and perpetrators are still alive and this was not a historical injustice that is beyond living memory but a recent abuse which, in some cases, has left devastating physical and mental legacies. It was suggested that such an investigation should start with Simon Wessely, and certainly his role in all of this, and any conflicts of interest he has, should be investigated, but not every act of humiliation and cruelty inflicted on an ME sufferer in a setting where they should be receiving care can be blamed on Wessely; anyone trained and employed to care for sick people should, if confronted with such a person, give them the care and compassion they are entitled to, rather than imagine that they are not sick based on something they read in their lecture notes or heard at a conference the other week. Abuse is abuse, and those responsible should be held accountable rather than be able to pass the buck to Simon Wessely or anyone else.

It is, of course, up to the victims and their families to bring any action against the individuals or the institutions responsible for what they suffered. Perhaps some of them just want to put it all behind them, and some who remain severely affected wouldn’t have the resources to co-operate with any investigation, least of all making it to court to testify. It is also possible that the defence might use the issue of memory impairment in ME to cast doubt on their testimony and that some of the more severely affected would simply be too ill to enjoy any compensation they won. Perhaps there are good reasons why there is no apparent movement to prosecute those responsible, but it is a mystery that nobody has been brought to book for such terrible cruelty to very sick people.

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