Elton John’s classic ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ is none more true in the ambit of sexual assault compensation claims than in any other context.
In representing victims and survivors of sexual assault, whether abused as children or sexually assaulted in adult life, I hear time and time again, the request for an apology. Often it is the refusal or the withholding of an apology that causes a victim or survivor to instigate a legal claim against those accountable. A lot of money could be saved by those on the receiving end of compensation claims arising from sexual assault, if only the relevant person or organisation had done the decent thing and offered a heartfelt apology in the first instance.
A court cannot force an apology. Regrettably, the judges’ powers in the civil courts are limited to determining fault on the part of a perpetrator or the organisation which he or she represents, and thereafter awarding damages (or compensation). So an apology must be negotiated separately from the legal process. It can be a powerful mechanism in the resolution of a legal claim arising from child abuse.
Of course for many an apology does not go anywhere near far enough, and while so many victims or survivors of sexual abuse are not motivated by money, they do earnestly desire proper accountability, and demonstration of a real intent that abuse will not happen again to anyone else. Many feel the only way of securing such goals is by seeking ‘damages’, or compensation.
Importantly, a civil action seeks reparation, and ideally financial restoration - that is, to put the person back into the position they would have been had the abuse not occurred. This is certainly an ideal, and is very tricky to do in child sexual abuse cases, because often the person only comes forward many decades after the abuse. Quantifying the value of financial loss requires careful consideration and analysis of what a person’s life might have been had it not been for the abuse.
Often victims or survivors of abuse considering legal action will express their wish for an apology as part of the resolution of their compensation claim. This can be acted on if their claim is successful (usually by way of an out-of-court settlement). An apology can be in writing or verbal.
Where the verbal expression of an apology is very important to a client, a joint settlement meeting can be a good forum for this. It is not unusual for a representative of the relevant organisation dealing with a compensation claim to attend a joint settlement meeting, and for time to be given on the day to a meeting with the victim or survivor. For example, in the case of a gentleman who had been seriously sexually abused by his parish priest of a number of years, the relevant Bishop attended the joint settlement meeting and had a ‘one to one’ meeting with my client, during which time my client had the opportunity to express his grievances and the lifelong effect the abuse had on him. He felt satisfied that the Bishop had heard him, and had acknowledged his suffering. He felt he had received a ‘heartfelt’ apology. For my client, that was the most important part of the day.
It must be recognised that an apology is not for everyone. For many their sense of betrayal is so deep they cannot contemplate asking for one, and that position must too be respected.
For those who ask for an apology and do not get one (which sadly is not uncommon), that is hard to bear. If the claim is successful, and compensation agreed, although not quite an apology, it can be seen as an admission of guilt.
Consideration of an apology as part and parcel of a child abuse compensation claim is down to the victim or survivor bringing the claim. It can form part of the ‘settlement package’, and if dealt with carefully and sensitively, it can go a long way towards facilitating the recovery of a person who has endured significant suffering.