After the fall of Apartheid in the mid-nineties, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was organized as a way for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to appear in a public forum and tell their stories. The policy was designed around a group of commissioners charged to hold hearings wherein perpetrators and victims of human rights violations enforced under Apartheid could speak about their past actions and hurt, and seek amnesty, forgiveness and closure for those actions. Political leaders from both the Apartheid and opposition parties like the ANC supported such a move, in the hopes of moving forward peacefully in the new democratic government. Ordinary citizens of South Africa also placed hope in the TRC, believing that this method would both encourage those who had committed crimes to reveal themselves, and grant comfort and peace to those who had suffered under Apartheid.
This policy has since been suggested as a solution for the suffering of those involved in the Catholic Church abuse scandals of past years, with the hope that the exposure of child abuse and the reconciliation of those accused of such injustices might allow victims the peace and progress to move on with their lives in the church community. Post-Apartheid South Africa and the post-scandal Catholic Church are inherently linked by gross human rights violations sanctioned by the governing authorities and by a desire for the exposure of such injustices. Although the TRC model emphasizes the kind of transparency that church members have long desired, and rejects the cloak of secrecy behind which perpetrators have been allowed for decades to hide behind, the TRC model also poses problems which might perpetuate, rather than alleviate, the problems which shrouded the abuse in the first place.
The Catholic community understands the importance of forgiveness in both concrete and spiritual ways. In fact, the sacrament of Reconciliation necessarily combines these two methods into one ritual, in which the participant asks forgiveness for past transgressions, or sins, and is considered forgiven after both prayer and good works are performed as an act of contrition. This ritual, called Reconciliation, Penance or Confession, begins with a very concrete and explicit detailing of the acts considered in the Catholic Church to be sins. Catholics understand, through scripture and church teaching, what actions are considered sins, and are encouraged to be honest in the verbal expression of those sins, in the presence of a priest who facilitates in the eyes of God this act of forgiveness. Many Catholics might cite the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule as examples of spiritual laws which, when broken, are categorized as sins. This ritual is considered imperative to Catholics the world over, as a sign of faith in the forgiveness of God, and as a promise of redemption and eternal life.
Of course, the Catholic idea of reconciliation with God is not the only definition. In the realm of conflict resolution, reconciliation implies a unity, forced or otherwise, of two formerly opposed parties or persons. In ethnic relations, reconciliation is defined as a restoration of mutual respect between individuals from different cultural backgrounds. In fact, some might argue that the TRC is a blending of all of these definitions. The TRC also acknowledges the need for open communication as the key to understanding, forgiveness and progress. All of these characteristics demonstrate the complexity of the TRC, and of the emotional response of its participants.
The TRC, according to Tristan Anne Borer in the article “A Taxonomy of Victims and Perpetrators: Human Rights and Reconciliation in South Africa”, relies on various distinctions between the victims of human rights violations and those who commit those violations, the perpetrators. For Borer, the distinction between and within these two groups is blurry at best: “The differences between the two groups are perhaps not as clear-cut as human rights scholars and activists, as well as journalists, governments, lawyers, and truth commissions themselves tend to portray them, and that highlights that the homogeneity that is assumed about the individuals within each group is similarly overstated” (Borer 1091). In fact, the problem of clearly defining victims and perpetrators is one which sets up the TRC to fail from the very beginning. If it is the case that all participants can claim victimhood on some level, because they are all members of a corrupt system and are only acting within or against this corruption, then the TRC must ultimately fail in its attempt to reconcile victims with their supposed perpetrators. And because the human rights laws in place after the fall of Apartheid were so new, and thus untested by the South African citizens, each case of civil rights violation brought before the TRC was considered unprecedented. Without any previous examples of such violations either accepted or condemned (except, as Alex Boraine states, those examples of commissions in Eastern Europe and South America), the TRC was forced to pass judgments on both victims and perpetrators without the aid of clear guidelines, and based solely upon the claims of the participants.
In an article by Alex Boraine titled “Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, the Third Way”, Boraine outlines the options facing South Africans on how to carry out the TRC in the most efficient and peaceful way. The former Apartheid leaders wanted blanket amnesty for those considered perpetrators. Members and supporters of the ANC, many of whom considered themselves victims, wanted those responsible for human rights violations to be put on trial and punished for wrongdoings. A third option, which was finally decided upon, was “a Bridge from the old to the new”, a compromise between the former Apartheid leaders and the new ANC leaders. This third option emphasized the ideals of truth, the restoration of dignity, “limited amnesty, and a search for healing and reconciliation”.
These ideals are quite familiar to Catholics, especially to those who grew up during the first revealing wave of pedophilic scandal surrounding the Catholic Church. The comparison between post-Apartheid South Africa and the post-scandal Catholic Church is meant to shine a light on some possible flaws in the system upon which so many South Africans relied for the implementation of their new brand of justice. When it was revealed to the public that the Catholic Church had been suppressing evidence of child abuse among its parishioners, members of the church first blamed those considered perpetrators of child abuse. Parishioners called upon their church leaders to reveal those perpetrators, and to bring their victims justice by punishing the abusers. It was later revealed that, while the perpetrators were indeed guilty in some cases of despicable acts of child abuse, many of these abuses were perpetuated because details of them were concealed by church leaders and other priests. What had begun as a small scale purging of pedophiles in the priesthood transformed into a much larger, more widespread and damaging web of scandal that involved priests, church and community leaders, and those Bishops and Cardinals holding the most power and influence in the church community. This web reflects a similar exposure to layer upon layer of guilt in South Africa, where not only single perpetrators but corporations, militant groups, political parties and national leaders were linked to the deaths of marginalized individuals.
The hunt for pedophiles and the keepers of their secrets in the US has revealed similar scandals around the world. In fact, in the latest round of controversy, the country of Ireland has been issued a letter of apology for almost a half a century of child abuse of Catholic Church members. This letter from church leaders in the Vatican, rather than providing comfort, has instead invited anger and frustration from the Church community, because it contains a blanket statement of sorrow at past events without any real apology, explanation or solution to an ongoing problem. Likewise, in the Boston area, many parishioners and priests have left the Catholic Church, due to their dissatisfaction with the pedophilic and secretive stigma now attached to their faith.
There is a reason such a model as the TRC is important in consideration of the Catholic Church abuse scandal. While blanket amnesty would have been the worst decision for South Africa after Apartheid, the TRC itself also deals with truth and reconciliation in a way which hides, rather than reveals the hurt inflicted upon the victims of human rights abuses. Because the Catholic Church believes in reconciliation between God and man as paramount to salvation, and because this can only be achieved through private confession to a priest, there is no need for other forms of penance beside that which is assigned by the priest. And because there is complete confidentiality between the confessor and the priest, those who have committed crimes feel safe in their confessions, and even feel liberated from the guilt of those crimes, by the absolution of their sins by the priest.
The TRC, unlike Catholic confession, was conducted in a public forum. But in the end, the decisions of the TRC were final, and the admission of guilt or suffering was both voluntary and protected by the commission. And, as it is with the Catholic Church, the perpetrators of human rights violations were often granted amnesty for their actions, based on the fact that they came forward and told their stories. Those perpetrators who were granted amnesty had the privilege of cleansing their consciences without penalty, and in some cases were allowed to move on with their lives despite many past transgressions.
Clearly, the TRC was created with the best of intentions for progress in South Africa. But with all the hurt caused by Apartheid, and with all of the citizens, both victims and perpetrators, affected by civil rights violations, it is impossible to hope that such a commission as the TRC can reverse the suffering of the South African people. According to Alex Boraine, the “third way” compromise between severe punishment and blanket amnesty was the best way to progress peacefully. But perhaps, despite being the most peaceful option for the new South Africa, the TRC has also perpetuated the civil rights violations that it was created to reconcile. The TRC imposes weak justice in some cases, leaving room for dissatisfaction which can result in hatred, hurt and revenge on the part of the victims, which are the same potential results of implementing the TRC model in the Catholic Church. Rather than taking the TRC as a positive example, I believe the Catholic Church should consider the negative effects such a policy would have on the victims of child abuse, and base future policy not on staged honesty and blanket amnesty but on real truth and real reconciliation.