Mea Culpa

They say confession is good for the soul. That may be so, but sometimes it seems there’s a whole lot of things it’s not nearly so good for. Just ask Liam Neeson.

Photo by Shalone Cason, Unsplash

The three-time Golden Globe winning actor, listed in “The 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History” and “The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time,” who recently sparked a furore by publicly recalling a racist episode from his dim, dark distant past, is now battling to save his career. In an interview with UK newspaper The Independent of London, the 66-year-old former boxer spoke of his violent upbringing as a Catholic in Protestant Belfast during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, revealing that as a young man more than 40 years ago he was once so enraged to learn of a friend’s alleged rape by a black man, for a week or so he took to the streets of his home town carrying a “cosh,” hoping to be accosted by a black man too so he could “kill” him. “I’m ashamed to say that,” he told his confessor. “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”

Surely few would deny the actor’s genuine remorse, or his desperate desire for redemption. But unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy. Neeson’s shocking revelation to The Independent immediately unleashed a tsunami of outrage across the media landscape, as the red carpet premiere of his latest release “Cold Pursuit” was quickly cancelled, and a social media firestorm erupted, with Twitter users denouncing the star as “disgusting,” and an example of “white, toxic masculinity,” and posters demanding his scenes in the upcoming film “Men in Black: International” be reshot with another actor, a la another Hollywood persona non grata, former Toast of Tinseltown, actor Kevin Spacey. As to where it all may lead, one need only reflect on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s arguably frank confession to using a “very little bit of shoe polish” to dress up as Michael Jackson when he was a medical student decades ago, which has led to strident and widespread calls for his resignation, and looks set to seriously threaten the Democrats run in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election campaign.

When I was a boy in short pants, the priests would corral us into the confessional every once in a while, make us kneel on a hard wooden ledge, bless ourselves, and unburden our souls. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Whatever dastardly deed we’d done, all we had to do was ‘fess up, and God would forgive us. And, as good Catholic boys, we had no doubt that He did. Clean slate, fresh start, all our terrible sins flushed away for the paltry price of an Act of Contrition and some rapidly repeated Hail Marys. It felt good.

But of course the true trick was not the confessing, but the forgiving. And, as the old saying goes, to err is human, but to forgive is divine. While God has obviously got really good at forgiving the endless legions of penitent sinners, we mere mortals are rarely so kind.

In recent decades criminal justice systems throughout the Western world have tried to incorporate concepts of restorative justice which offer an alternative to the curial disposition of criminal charges. In our own system initiatives such as Justice Mediation and Youth and Adult Restorative Justice now allow courts to divert the prosecution of criminal charges to out-of-court meetings, chaired by a mediator, in which victim and perpetrator may meet and discuss the offending behaviour, assess and acknowledge its impact, and potentially jointly find mutually-acceptable closure. If they do, the prosecution is finished, the charges are dropped, and everyone walks away happy. But while that may sound simple, it’s not just a matter of sitting around in a circle cross-legged, holding hands, and singing Kumbaya. It requires, to begin with, a frank and candid confession from the wrongdoer, and at least some modicum of forgiveness, at some level, from their victim. That can be a big call. True forgiveness is a powerful sentiment, but it’s not always easy to find.

New York psychotherapist Martha Crawford recently wrote of her work with prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes, who were offered participation in a restorative justice program, designed to support victims and offer perpetrators the opportunity to atone for their actions. The convicts quickly and spontaneously agreed, no doubt keen for forgiveness and a clean bill of health. But the psychotherapist had to remind them the process was not just about them seeking redemption, and being forgiven. Their victims might need to make them feel more guilt and pain, not less, to understand the long-lasting damage their actions had wreaked.

“My clients had to first assume and withstand responsibility for their actions, to their victims’ satisfaction,” she wrote. “When they understood the realities of the process, some couldn’t face it. It was too much.”

Liam Neeson’s painful confession, reflecting the collective historical guilt of white privilege, was very clearly sincere, and came straight from the heart. But in the end it’s forgiveness, not confession, that truly is good for the soul. A nation may be moved to say ‘Sorry’, but it still has to Close the Gap, and no sinner can hope to be freed of their guilt while their victim continues to feel the effects of their crimes.

Sorry is a good start. Absolution may take some time.

First published in Ocean Road Magazine, Autumn 2019

Chris Nyst

Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker

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