Has Bishop Foys Properly Apologized to the Covington Boys?

Happy Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas!

In honor of the great apologist, my mentor in many things both spiritual and intellectual, I present a short treatise on Apology, in the modern sense meaning something like “a verbal expression of sorrow and regret for a fault committed”.

Secondary sources are linked throughout, but you can access the primary source here: Bishop Foys’s 1/25 press release.

Whether Bishop Foys Has Properly Apologized to Nick Sandmann and the Covington Boys?

Objection 1. It would seem that Bishop Foys has properly apologized in his statement, “I especially apologize to Nicholas Sandmann and his family as well as to all CovCath families who have felt abandoned during this ordeal”, because the apology was made in a public press release, the same medium as the offending detraction.

Objection 2. Further, the person most harmed was individually named in the apology and other less-harmed groups—“his family”; “all CovCath families”—were identified. Therefore Bishop Foys has properly apologized.

Objection 3. Further, the apology recognizes and regrets the effect of the initial wrong—“who have felt abandoned”; “Nicholas has become the face of these allegations…this is not fair. This is not just”. Therefore Bishop Foys has properly apologized.

Objection 4. Further, Bishop Foys reiterates that the Diocese is conducting an ongoing investigation which at this time he expects to exonerate and help the students; so the investigation is a form of reparation for public attacks against the students. Therefore Bishop Foys has properly apologized.

On the contrary, the apology was issued at the end of a 48-hour-window given to the diocese by Nick Sandmann’s legal counsel to avoid being named in a libel lawsuit, despite the Bishop’s earlier promise that “We will have no further statements until the investigation is complete”, and a proper apology must be made for the sake of the wronged, not for the sake of the wrongdoer. Therefore Bishop Foys has not properly apologized.

I answer that all perfect apologies must have seven parts, as illustrated by the parts of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Act of Contrition, and that Bishop Foys’s statement contains only one of these, and that imperfectly; further, that apologies made by someone in a position of superiority to an inferior must be greater as the distance in hierarchy or social position is greater, and Bishop Foys’s apology fails to demonstrate the magnanimity proper to his office; further, that an apology must be made with the purposes both of restoring to the injured party what was lost and of restoring the relationship between wrongdoer and victim to what it had been, and Bishop Foys’s apology manifestly intends neither of these essential purposes.

  1. Seven Parts of Apology
    1. Enumeration of Faults. An apology is made sincere by accurately recounting all faults committed, with greater specificity and precision both as the wrong is greater and as the office of the wrongdoer is greater, thereby showing that the wrongdoer fully understands the injury caused. Bishop Foys’s apology fails in this, as he is guilty of the following four faults and has not enumerated any of them:
      1. Rash judgment in the initial rushed condemnation;
      2. Self-interest at the expense of charity and concern for the students, three times over:
        1. In the initial condemnation on 1/19,
        2. In the subsequent qualified retraction on 1/22,
        3. And in the letter of apology in question on 1/25.
      3. An ongoing failure to exercise the full duties of his responsibility as Bishop over the Covington boys. When a child throws a baseball through the neighbor’s window, the child’s parent, representing the child, makes proper atonement for the child’s behavior by paying what the child cannot for the cost of the window, as Christ paid what we could not in atonement for our sins. Anyone in a quasi-paternal position of authority, especially within the Christian Church, assumes the same responsibility, in imitation of Christ, for all of his charge’s failings. The Bishop therefore ought to have come out on Saturday the 19th with an attitude of being prepared to sacrifice his own reputation in defense of his students, rather than sacrificing the students for the benefit of his reputation.
      4. An ongoing failure of prudential judgment: there is no serious question of legal action around the initial incident, but throughout all of last week and continuing as I write, damage is being done to the boys’ reputation by ongoing media attacks. The diocese has been cautious and slow to retract—in contrast to their rush to judgment—as if they were involved in a legal proceeding, when they are in fact involved in what the Bishop has fairly described as a “media circus”. It is possible to regret that one has been pulled into a media circus and still act appropriately, just as it is possible to be involved in a car crash and still act appropriately: you pull your children out of the wreck and protect them from further harm, before completing the analysis of what exactly caused the crash. The Bishop has failed to exercise this emergency protection over his students.
    2. Personally Naming & Addressing the Wronged Party(ies). As the Act of Contrition begins “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…” so an apology must name and be addressed to the wronged parties. Bishop Foys’s apology makes a beginning of this, but it falls short in several ways:
      1. While Bishop Foys does name the principal victim, Nicholas Sandmann, in his press release, this is inadequate because of the principle that a wrongdoer holding high office over the victim must exceed a precise reparation, as David says of the wealthy man who stole his neighbor’s lamb: “He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” –2 Samuel 12:6. Now, with regards to the manner of naming & addressing the wronged party, therefore, it is inadequate to name and address the victim merely via a press release when the wrong was perpetrated via a press release, but Bishop Foys ought to have issued an apology via at least one press release and more, such as an apologetic speech to the student body at Covington, and a personal visit of apology to the Sandmann home.
      2. Further, Bishop Foys’s actions have harmed many people and groups that he failed to name:
        1. His apology names “all CovCath families who have felt abandoned…” but the Bishop’s actions harmed all CovCath families, whether or not they felt abandoned, so the conditional apology limiting the audience is insufficient.
        2. The other boys present on the field trip, and their families, ought to have been named as a special group in the press release.
        3. The Bishop ought to apologize to his entire diocese, for the injury caused by his actions to the reputation of the diocese.
        4. The Bishop ought to apologize to the entire Catholic community throughout the world for the scandal caused by his actions. Note that while the Bishop writes, “We apologize to anyone who has been offended in any way by either of our statements which were made with good will based on the information we had,” and in this way seems to address an apology to a satisfactorily broad audience, this is not adequate because it is not in fact a statement of apology; it is merely a statement of regret, for two reasons:
          1. The statement separates the action (“our statements”) from the effect (“anyone who has been offended”). Note that the sentence betrays no indication that the Bishop repents of anything written in the two statements in question, only that he wishes people wouldn’t be bothered by them.
          2. The statement mentions mitigating circumstances that betray any intended apology, making it clear the Bishop stands by the two statements in question and would do the same thing next time: “…which were made with good will based on the information we had.”
    3. Statement of Ownership. “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee…” An apology must show that the wrongdoer understands the full extent of his wrongs, both his actions and their effects. Bishop Foys’s apology fails to meet this requirement in several ways.
      1. First, with each attempted apology, Bishop Foys shifts blame to circumstances or third parties:
        1. “…made with good will based on the information we had.”
        2. “We should not have allowed ourselves to be bullied and pressured into making a statement prematurely.”
      2. Second, Bishop Foys divorces his actions from their proper consequences to avoid ownership of the consequences:
        1. “We apologize to anyone who has been offended in any way by either of our statements…” People were offended because the statements were offensive. Issuing the offensive statements was an action of the Bishop; offended people is an effect of offensive statements. As the statements were the Bishop’s, so the resulting offense is the Bishop’s. This could have been better written, for example, as “We apologize for our statements, which were offensive.”
        2. Similarly, “all CovCath families who have felt abandoned”—if the Bishop believes that feelings of abandonment are unjustified, then this is merely an insincere expression of empathy or regret, not true apology. However, if he believes the feelings are justified, then he is acknowledging that CovCath families were, in fact, abandoned; and therefore that he abandoned them. This could therefore be better written as “all CovCath families whom I have abandoned.”
    4. Intent to Reform. “And I detest all my sins, because of thy just punishments…” A sincere apology must show the wronged party that the wrongdoer firmly intends never to repeat the same fault. In the Act of Contrition, this is accomplished by acknowledging the basest reason for reformation, the fear of punishment. Bishop Foys’s apology fails to meet this standard, in fact doing the opposite at every opportunity, by making it clear that if given the chance he would do the same thing again.
      1. First, this is clear from the foregoing on ownership. Reformation is not possible without ownership, as one cannot reform what one does not control.
      2. Second, in a Thursday 1/24 address to the Covington student body, Bishop Foys explicitly stands by his initial 1/19 statement as an appropriate action at the time, and the 1/25 press release does not retract this position but seems to confirm it: “With what we saw and what we heard at the time, we had to say what we said and we meant it.”
    5. Plan for Good Conduct. “But most of all because they have offended thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.” As the Enumeration of Faults identifies what one did wrong, and the Intent to Reform states that one will no longer commit those same faults, the Plan for Good Conduct goes further in stating what positive actions one will do instead; this enables accountability to a specific plan and it shows the injured party that the wrongdoer understands what he ought to have done in the first place. This also fits the traditional summation of all ethics into “Do good and avoid evil”—we have covered “avoid evil”, but that is not enough; now we get to “do good”. For a Christian to do good towards God, one must give Him “all my love” as the prayer states. Bishop Foys fails utterly to satisfy this requirement, giving no indication at all of what positive actions he believes he ought to take should his students ever again be smeared in the media. This is unsurprising, as, without an Enumeration of Faults, a Statement of Ownership, or an Intent to Reform, there is no place for a Plan for Good Conduct. The Bishop insinuates throughout that his conduct is already good, that he is a fellow victim of the media, and therefore no alternate plan is needed.
    6. Resolution. “I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” This resolution, both to do good and avoid evil, summarizes all the foregoing and makes it concrete. As with the previous point, the Bishop makes no attempt to satisfy this requirement, nor could he given the foregoing failures. If he had identified his faults, if he had apologized to the correct people for those faults, if he had expressed ownership of those faults, if he had expressed an intent to reform, and if he’d shown that he knew there was a better way, he would then have been able to satisfy this requirement with some statement like the following: “Should any of my flock ever again be smeared in the media, I vow not to rush to judgment, but instead to sooner rush to their defense, as is proper for a shepherd: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.’
    7. Reparation. No apology is complete without reparation, which serves the primary purpose of satisfying the demands of justice, and the secondary purpose of confirming in action what has been said in words. Perfect reparation between peers, though not often possible, consists in restoring precisely what was lost, as, for instance, theft is repaired by restoring the stolen object. When this is not possible, it must be approximated as closely as possible, as someone pays the price of a replacement for an object lost or broken, or as a murderer spends his own life in prison for the taking of another life. Further, the demands of reparation are generally conditional on the social standing or natural hierarchy of the wrongdoer and the wronged party. An inferior pays less than the cost when making reparation, as a young child might have $1 removed from his piggy bank in reparation for breaking a $50 lamp, whereas a superior should make reparation in excess of the cost of the injury, as David says of the wealthy man who stole his neighbor’s lamb that he should repay four times over. Further, as the degree of disparity grows between the wrongdoer and the wronged, so also the degree of disparity in reparation must grow. Now a bishop outranks a Catholic schoolboy by many degrees, both in ecclesial hierarchy and in social standing. Therefore magnanimous reparation is due many times over the cost of the injury. Bishop Foys has made no attempt to offer reparation of any kind, not to mention magnanimous reparation far greater than the cost of the injury. Now in this case, there is no precise value on the impact that this media circus has had on the lives of Nick Sandmann and his peers, and appropriately magnanimous reparation must be a matter of conscience on the part of the bishop. Some suggestions follow:
      1. If he had made a full apology in other respects, Bishop Foys would be in a position to sincerely offer the use of his diocesan legal team to the students and their families, and even to offer to join any libel lawsuits as a fellow plaintiff and for the diocese to pay any necessary legal and related expenses.
      2. Similarly, he could have offered for the diocese to pay for all PR expenses. Offering the use of the diocese’s PR team, while theoretically noble, would not do here given the statements that have led them to the need for reparation.
      3. The Bishop could offer to write glowing character references for each of the boys, especially Nick Sandmann, when they apply for college or any jobs, in reparation for the damage he did to their reputations.
      4. Bishop Foys could publicly commend Nick Sandmann’s stoicism in his response to Nathan Phillips’s aggression, and could perhaps invite Mr. Sandmann to give him and his communications staff some training for how to respond in a Christian manner to “bullying and pressure”.

Reply to Objection 1. Apologizing via press release to a wrong committed via press release, while appropriate between peers, is inadequate due to Bishop Foys’s high station in regards to the students, as stated in the response.

Reply to Objection 2. While Nick Sandmann and other harmed parties were named, more is required for a proper apology, and the apology falls short in every other respect, as laid out in the response.

Reply to Objection 3. These statements of regret, given the absence of ownership, are comparable to statements like “I’m sorry about the weather” and “I’m sorry for your loss.” They could be polite and meaningful coming from someone who was not, in fact, responsible, but they pile insult upon injury coming from the person who is at fault.

Reply to Objection 4. It may be true that the investigation will help the students, and that would be a good thing if it happens. But it would not be to the credit of Bishop Foys, because it is not what he intended, and intent is central to any meritorious apology or reparation: you can’t apologize by chance. The intent of the investigation when it was first promised on 1/19 was to support “appropriate action” against the students, “up to and including expulsion”. When Bishop Foys now expresses his expectation that the results will “exonerate our students”, one wonders why the investigation hasn’t been stopped and an actual apology issued.

I include here a personal note to Bishop Foys, on the off-chance that this post goes viral and you end up reading it: I dislike commenting on the news, and I would not distribute public charges if private ones were possible or appropriate. Alas, a private charge against a public figure over a public matter is neither possible nor desirable in this situation. I acknowledge that the complaints you have made about the difficult situation you were in are fair, as far as they go. I further acknowledge that your apology was not unusually bad, but merely usually bad; “par for the course” as public apologies go. That is to say, “not nearly good enough”. You get all the headlines saying you’ve issued an apology, because what else would they say? Without actually apologizing for anything. I can’t promise that I would do better. And yet, it is you and not I who are entrusted with one of the highest and most noble offices there is on this earth. Much, much more is needed from you.

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