When Perpetrators Deny Their Crimes

A couple years ago, I posted part of this on my Myspace blog. My old ministry group director’s wife called me to tell me that I was wrong: the VICTIM should go to the person who offended them and ask for forgiveness. She called me to tell me, also, that I should take it down off the internet, that my relationship with God was clearly not right, and that I was obviously offended. I don’t think abuse is right, and I think the road to forgiveness is a complicated one. In my situation, the person who committed the abuse never admitted to it or acknowledged the pain caused. This essay was written as I tried to understand the complicated situation that occurs when one is victimized.

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Desmond Tutu writes of a play entitled Death and the Maiden, where he suggests that the denial of a crime that’s been committed victimizes the victim again and also denies that person’s identity. (Tutu, 29) For a perpetrator to suggest that forgiveness is not important is to deprive a person of attempting to wrestle with the healing process their own soul must endure. When a person is victimized, part of their soul is robbed; however, when a person is victimized without the crime being confronted, the victim’s soul may be haunted. Although painful and sometimes long, the journey to dignity begins with restoration of the victimized soul.

According to Pulma Gobodo-Madikizela, “When the perpetrator begins to show remorse, to seek some way to ask forgiveness, the victim becomes the gatekeeper to what the outcast desires—readmission into the human community.” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 117) The important factor for both the victim and the perpetrator in any situation is the readmission into the human community.

The perpetrator, in committing the crime, has shut the door to his conscious and pushed another member of the human community into darkness. The evil committed by the perpetrator is an example of the evil and darkness within his or her soul.

The victim, having received the evil, has unwillingly entered into a place of darkness, brought upon by pain, where he or she may dwell until they find a path to restoration. This path to restoration may come through forgiveness, depending on the victim’s belief system. Either way, a sometimes long and painful journey must begin in their heart. The victim must keep in mind, in order to keep sane, that forgiving another human does not mean to forgetting the evil.

The South African concept of Ubuntu explains why the readmission into the human community is important for both the victim and the perpetrator. Tutu explains that social harmony and the idea of Ubuntu give “people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.” (Tutu, 31)

In African culture, social harmony is the greatest good. Ironically enough, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was attempting to bring out social harmony by means of admission of evil done from a half-century of hatred and murder. The intention was well-meaning and appropriate for this idea of Ubuntu as it relates to personhood. The lack of denial in the TRC trials began to restore personhood back to the victims and the families of the victims. The African’s desire to be “human because of belonging, participating and sharing” is met with this idea of Ubuntu, which the TRC is trying to restore to South Africa. (Tutu, 31) In order to rebuild a new nation, a level of social harmony had to be worked toward. Ubuntu had to be presented to both the victims and the perpetrators, simply because both the offended and offender had to live in the same country and build together in the future. Although this caused great pain for the victims, this striving for Ubuntu may have help the victim re-enter the human community.

George Santayana says “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” (Tutu, 29) To forgive does not necessarily mean to condone the offense. (Gobodo-Madikizela, 117) To forgive but never forget may be one of the most humanizing responses in many situations.

Each criminal offense committed during the fifty year Apartheid was devastating to the country, and also to the victim and their families. The threat of repeating the Apartheid was looming if forgiveness had not taken place. Tutu explains South Africa’s motto became “Never Again,” when remembering the great atrocities committed against men, women and children across the nation.

Massacres occurred during the fifty years of Apartheid that dehumanized the entire population. Disturbing parallels occurred with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in 1960, where 69 people were shot in the back, with the Apartheid and police brutalities committed to African American’s in America during the same time. Although Santayana suggests that forgetting will lead us to be doomed to repeat the past, it seems that this must have held true across the world. How else would this sad portrayal of hatred and dehumanization be occurring across the world simultaneously?

Tutu points out that the “Allies could pack up and go home after Nuremburg; we in South Africa had to live with one another.” (Tutu, 21) This statement points to the issues the government faced when rebuilding the new South Africa. Instead of placing “Jim Crow” laws, or excuses to keep Apartheid in tact, South Africa attempted to amend the wrongs done on both sides. The issue of slavery and dehumanization in America was not dealt with as honestly as in South Africa.

America decided to sweep some issues under the rug. At the same time Civil Rights issues were pervading the country, America was also denying the entry of Jewish refugees and Holocaust victims a place to live in our country. Instead of liberty, they were given death.

Forgiveness helps reestablish a victim’s health and dignity as a human being, and also elevates the victim to a position of strength. How? The victim is not asked to forget what was done, but rises above it, saying: “I cannot and will not return the evil you inflicted on me.” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 117)

The matter of devastation need not be as important as the fact that the victim feels violated and infringed upon. The fact that the victim is able to say he or she is able to forgive is a great leap back into the human community and a huge step back into re-humanization.

To forgive is to be able to live in greater harmony with oneself, but also in greater harmony with the rest of the world and ones community. To grieve, mourn, and be victimized can mean the person unwillingly delves into the darkness of human nature. When evil is inflicted upon a person, without cause, a suggestion of the capabilities of all human beings to be dark and diminishing is placed upon the victim.

I’d venture to say that the desire for retaliation changes when the perpetrator admits the crime and asks for forgiveness. This doesn’t make forgiveness easy. In fact, admission of the crime and a form of repentance or desire to be absolved may in fact wound the victim again.

The road to forgiveness is perhaps one of the most painful roads a victim must travel down.

Often just beginning to walk down this path to forgiveness is excruciatingly painful for the victim. Gobodo-Madikizela explains that “feelings of anger and revenge against those who commit gross abuses are understandably, easier to develop and to sustain than an attitude that seeks engagement and dialogue.” (Gobodo-Madikizela, 120)

Works Cited

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pulma. A Human Being Died that Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness. Houghton-Milton, 2003

Tutu, Desmond. No Future without Forgiveness. Doubleday, 1999.

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Lisa Kerr

Lisa is a writer, editor and humorist who has been featured on the Huffington Post, Philly.com, New York magazine, and BreakThru Radio. Find more of her at: thelisakerr.com.