Forgiveness is a difficult subject
For many people, forgiveness is a religious term, something that you’re supposed to strive for in life. For many survivors of child sexual abuse, forgiveness doesn’t come easy.
- What is forgiveness anyway?
- Is it necessary to forgive in order to heal?
- What makes a good apology?
- Is it okay to ask forgiveness from a survivor?
What is forgiveness anyway?
Forgiveness has different definitions, depending upon which dictionary you open. I believe that forgiveness is something that is a possible, but not necessary, result of a healing process. Forgiveness, for me, has to do with letting go of all the anger from the past. To me it’s all about moving on with my life. As such it’s not even connected to the perpetrator so much as it is something that shifts inside of me, allowing me to continue with my life unburdened. Many people believe that granting forgiveness to the abuser(s) is a necessary component of healing, but I disagree. I believe whether you forgive or not is a matter of personal choice. Forgiveness is yours to grant or withhold, at your will.
What forgiveness is not
In my book, what forgiveness is not, is very important as well. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse what’s been done. It doesn’t exonerate the perpetrator. It doesn’t give the perpetrator a ‘get out of jail free’ pass. It’s doesn’t pardon the perpetrator and it certainly doesn’t justify what’s been done. It doesn’t waive any responsibility and it doesn’t acquit the perpetrator or make any punishment unnecessary. Forgiveness doesn’t make what happened okay in any way, shape or form. It’s simply the act of letting go.
Letting go of anger comes after you first grab a hold of it
In order to heal from child sexual abuse, I believe it’s not necessary to forgive the abuser(s). In fact, stressing forgiveness at the start of healing is counterproductive. Many survivors have mixed feelings about the abuser. The perpetrator may be not just the abuser, but your older brother as well. Or your father, mother, uncle or aunt, someone you look up to and admire. These mixed feelings often make it difficult to become angry about the abuse.
Is anger a necessary step in healing?
Quite often, becoming angry is a necessary step in healing. A person needs anger in order to be able to set boundaries, that’s what anger is for! It’s unsurprising that many survivors of child sexual abuse have difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries as theirs have been crossed against their will and their anger about that was suppressed, by the perpetrators threats, through grooming, by fear or misplaced loyalty. Quite often, because the anger has been suppressed for a long time, people are afraid of their own anger. ‘I’m afraid that I might kill somebody if I let this anger out’ is something that I’ve heard several of my clients tell me. Getting in touch with anger is necessary in order to dissolve that fear and in order to learn to set sane boundaries and protect yourself with them.
Is it okay to ask forgiveness of a survivor?
We’ve all recently heard the pope ask for forgiveness on behalf of the errant priests that have abused children. Some survivors were very upset with that, while others took joy in this admission of guilt and attempt to ‘make good’. By and large the sentiment was ‘It’s too easy, more is needed than just an apology’. Lately the pope is starting to show some true leadership with regards to this issue, appointing commities and berating his cardinals for having allowed these gruesome things to continue under their watchful eyes. The plea for forgiveness gains a lot of credibility with his willingness to work towards prevention of this kind of thing ever happening again.
What makes a good apology?
A good apology has to have four elements in it:
- Admitting guilt
- Show you understand why it was wrong
- Offer to make amends
- Make sure it doesn’t happen again
The pope asking for forgiveness is an admission of guilt. Personally I find it a bit awkward that he asks for forgiveness for other peoples crimes, but I suppose it’s been that way since Jesus was nailed to the cross, so at least it’s consistent within his own belief system. Him setting up a committee after the apology, which included representatives who have themselves been abused shows that he understands, or is at the very least willing to learrn about why what happened was so heinous. The last component of a good apology is that you offer to make amends and work towards preventing it from ever happening again. The pope in this case does seem to be working towards that goal, making his apology all the more valuable.
When is it okay to ask for forgiveness?
My idea about forgiveness is that it’s something that should be freely given if at all. I don’t’think asking to be forgiven is a good thing to do, but if someone should ask to be forgiven, the plea needs to have all four elements in it. One more component of a good plea for forgiveness is: ‘Be prepared to have the answer be no.’ If the answer is no and your apology has been sincere, you’ll still know within your own heart that you’ve done all that you could do to make amends.
Final words on forgiveness
You can never force someone to forgive anyone. Some acts may be unforgiveable, simply because the perpetrator knowingly abused a child for his or her own sexual gratification, with complete disregard, or worse enjoyment, of the pain and suffering he or she caused with this act. In order to be granted forgiveness the minimum requirement is remorse. Without it, asking for forgiveness is an empty wordplay and an added insult to the victim of your maltreatment.
For more information about the long term effects of child sexual abuse and how to heal from them, buy the book ‘I Thrive. Healing child sexual abuse’ at Amazon.com