Anyone who has been a small girl – half of us – knows the power of the hostile apology. Every person who has worn pigtails knows that if you get your “sorry” in fast enough after the pinch, push or hairpull that engendered it, you can deftly step out of the uncomfortable role of wronger into the much more comfortable status of wronged person.
Add a trembling lip and some well-judged tears and the teacher’s wrath can be deflected totally onto the other person, whether or not they started it.
Girls know this instinctively: boys take longer to work it out.
Jay Rayner, the son of agony aunt Clare, runs an apology website where people anonymously post apologies for their sins.
Perhaps unaware that Catholics have for many centuries been logging onto a similar spiritual website known as confession, TV companies cannot praise Mr Rayner too highly for his brilliant innovation.
Unfortunately, whereas www.the-apologist.co.uk contains many genuine apologies, it is clogged up with impostors – apologies that aren’t apologies but attacks.
Most are from angry women – such as “I am sorry I ever got married to you...I am sorry you kicked me in the stomach when I was pregnant and subsequently forced me to have an abortion...I am really sorry that there are bastards like you everywhere and that their wives never pluck up the courage to leave.” There is another form of hostile apology, also common in marriages: the unwelcome apology, which informs the victim of something they had been happier not knowing about, perhaps never needed to know about.
At the end of family mass last Sunday, our parish priest announced that we were all to listen very carefully to a VERY IMPORTANT message from the Cardinal Archbishop.
Heavens above! Mums’ and dads’ heads popped up anxiously from under the pews where they had been hunting for lost coats, baby’s bottles and crayons. A few of the teenagers almost visibly woke up.
The “important announcement” concerned criminal proceedings against a priest we had never heard of, in another part of the diocese far, far away, who had been accused of crimes against children.
Apparently he had worked in our parish at some stage (no one could remember him) so we – and our children, of all ages – needed to be informed.
“What on earth was that all about?” the children chorused, loudly, as we emerged blinking into the sunlight. “Oh...well...I’ll explain later,” I said. Lame? I was hobbling.
Ican see the thinking behind the bold new inyour-face strategy of forcing the Church faithful to be the first to know when a priest goes wrong.
Never again must the Church be accused of hushing anything up. So instead, if another paedophile priest comes to light, we shall put his name up in flashing red lights over the pulpit.
But at the “family” mass? Now I know that the fight to protect my children from the casual media treatment of horrible topics is one I have almost completely lost. I have tried.
I have been known to throw the “sex and pornography special” issue of that popular family publication, The Times magazine, straight into the recycling bin, still wrapped.
I switch the TV off more often than on. Even the charming James Naughtie has to be switched off sometimes, I am sorry to say.
Trying, I have concluded after many years, is the main point of the exercise: I cannot, and indeed nor should I hope to keep my darlings’ little ears unsullied for ever – what counts is that they learn to distinguish between the news that is necessary and interesting, and that which is pointlessly, gloatingly prurient.
But I had thought that if there was one place where I could relax and not worry about covering my children’s ears, it was the church pew.
I am all for open discussion within the church, by the Church, between priests and laity – the adults, that is.
But do we really need to shove it in the face of the toddlers’ liturgy group? The team of nine-year-old readers in their white socks? The tiny little altar servers carrying candlesticks taller than themselves?
Let the Church pay the full price for having allowed other children to suffer. But please, let us allow those children we have left to keep their innocence – for a little while at least.