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"I am sorry" are the three hardest words to say in any language.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving

In a family’s journey after the act and disclosure of sibling sexual trauma, there will be plenty of opportunities for apologies. True apology, like true forgiveness, is commonly misunderstood and trivialized. It goes beyond saying the words, “I’m sorry.” It’s easy for one person to assume they have apologized, and the receiver to experience it instead as another offense.


According to Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, a sincere apology is focused on the wrong you are apologizing for, period. It does not include:

  • excuses

  • explanations

  • “I'm sorry for..., but…” No but's allowed.

  • “I’m sorry that you feel…”

  • a balancing of the other person’s offenses against you and their need to apologize (Even if that is also necessary, this is not the time for it.)


The Four R's

Full apology will include genuinely expressing at least these four sentiments, and backing them up with appropriate facial and body language, and actions whenever possible.

Remorse: “I’m sorry." This includes being specific about naming what you are sorry for, showing that you understand the wrong you did and the impact it had on the other person.

Responsibility: “I was wrong.” It is appropriate to apologize, and to include this step, even if you did not mean to harm the person, if it came from ignorance or even good intentions. “I made a mistake” may be an acceptable variation if it is truly the case that there was no ill will or negligence involved.

Restitution: “How can I make it right?” This can include an offer of help or repayment, and/or the question “Is there anything I can do to help repair the damage I have done?”

Repentance: “I intend to change.” This should be backed up with a plan and accountability. It doesn’t mean you have to change overnight and never slip up, but that you are taking steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening again, and have a plan to recognize and correct if you slip up. (If the apology is for a single action that is long past, this may not be needed.)


A fifth step, asking for forgiveness, may strengthen an apology, but it is not always appropriate. It may take attention away from the offense, or create doubts about the intentions of the one apologizing. It should never come with the attitude of expecting or demanding forgiveness. That would turn the whole apology upside down, into manipulation and intimidation. It must leave the decision of if and when to forgive freely in the hands of the one who was hurt. Still, if one sincerely hopes for reconciliation of the relationship, requesting forgiveness can be a meaningful step in that direction.


In a family trying to heal from sibling sexual trauma, there will be plenty of chances to practice apology, for wrongs large and small. Practicing sincere apology for smaller wrongs can actually be a good start.









When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, copyright 2013, Northfield Publishing

A sincere apology, given to the sibling who was violated, should always stand separate from the question of whether the survivor is ready, or whether it is even safe, to move on toward reunification or reconciliation.  A survivor should never hear the message, actual or implied, “They apologized, so you should get over it and move on.”

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