Taking responsibility for your own actions is a difficult but important step toward healing and mental health, first for the sibling you have harmed but also for yourself. There are different levels and different ways to take responsibility.
Outside of the Criminal Justice System
Confession: “Yes, I did that.” Admitting guilt, corroborating that what the survivor reported is correct. Even a simple confession is a critical step in the direction of taking full responsibility. It offers the survivor personal validation. It corroborates their experience, so that others will believe them. Ideally a confession would not include any explanations or excuses.
Apology: A carefully crafted and sincere apology can be a powerful way to take responsibility, with great potential to heal the sibling you hurt as well as yourself. Apology includes facing the full truth, taking sole responsibility for your actions, and expressing sincere remorse. It is strengthened by making amends.
Amends: A tangible action taken with the goal of making things a little more right, of demonstrating progress toward repentance, of showing concern for the welfare of the one who was harmed. If you are the one making amends, you must understand that there is no way to truly undo the damage you have done. But making amends shows you are willing to do what is possible now, to make good choices in the future, and to promote healing for the sibling you have harmed.
Amends should not be done with any expectation or condition that the survivor is obligated to respond with forgiveness or reconciliation. But amends can make forgiveness and/or reconciliation a bit easier if the survivor desires to move in that direction at some point.
Example of amends: An individual who caused sexual trauma when they were a child or adolescent who offers, as an adult, to cover therapy costs for their sibling.
Giving Back: Reflections on People Who Have Abused Supporting Those Who Have Been Harmed; thoughts and advice from By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D. and David S. Prescott, LICSW of NOTA, a UK organization supporting professionals to prevent sexual abuse
Accepting Consequences: Allowing the consequences to fall on oneself as the offender--without deflecting, or blaming, or making excuses--is part of the ongoing journey of taking responsibility. It is a sign of the sincerity of your apology and the depth of your repentance.
Example of acception consequences: An individual who has given an apology for sexually violating a sibling might refrain from joining family holiday celebrations if the survivor is not yet comfortable with their presence.
Within the Criminal Justice System
If there is a case anticipated or pending in the criminal justice system, taking responsibility becomes more complicated. What is best for therapeutic healing may not be what is recommended, or even allowed, by legal authorities. Exercising one’s rights as a defendant may appear, rightly or wrongly, to be dodging responsibility. Here are a few decisions you may face. I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.
Hiring a defense lawyer: It is standard practice for anyone facing criminal charges to be represented by an attorney. The attorney makes sure you are treated fairly and within the law by investigators and courts. Hiring a lawyer does not necessarily mean you are shirking all responsibility. But it may appear that way to others in your family, including the sibling who was sexually violated. If you are concerned that your legal representation will adversely affect those you love, discuss this with your attorney. At the end of the day, the attorney’s job is to represent your wishes, and it is valid to consider the welfare of your family as well as your legal best interest. Your attorney will advise you on what is in your legal best interest, but it is your decision whether to take that advice or not. Your attorney is giving counsel, not orders.
Pleading Not Guilty (Denial in juvenile court): Entering an initial plea of Not Guilty/Denial appears on the surface to be denying all responsibility. However, a plea of Not Guilty is not equal to declaring total innocence. Technically it means, “I am not criminally liable for the exact charge that has been entered against me.” In practice it means you are retaining the right to a trial or to negotiate a plea deal. If you have decided to enter a plea of not guilty, it may help if this concept is explained to the rest of the family.
Pleading Guilty (Admission in juvenile court): When a defendant pleads Guilty/Admission they waive their right to a trial and appeal. This can be a significant benefit to the rest of the family, as it prevents the victim and possibly other family members from having to testify in court. If the charge and sentence are appropriate, it can allow you to move on to treatment or whatever the next step will be.
Restorative Justice: More courts, particularly juvenile courts, now have an option for Restorative Justice. This option encourages taking responsibility, making amends, and working toward reconciliation. Unfortunately it is not always legally available if a sexual offense is charged. But it is worth asking the attorneys involved to examine the possibility, if the survivor is interested.
These are responsible, respectful, confidential places to discuss the best way to take responsibility if your own actions, in the context of your life right now.
Stop It Now! Helplines (any age)
WhatsOK.org Helplines (preteens, teens, young adults)
Stop It Now! Article: What Could Happen to Me if I’ve Crossed the Line
Thriving Survivors Research and Pilot Program, Restorative Justice in Cases of Sexual Harm