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A field test of equivocation theory: Apologies by Canadian churches to indigenous people
Unformatted Document Text:  20 their institutions and that indigenous children, who were now adults, would have rights in this and other instances.2 A second line of evidence also points to concern about legal liability: The United 1986 apology is exclusively about cultural and religious errors, which may not be actionable or at least would not, at present, incur large damages. Responsibility for physical and sexual abuse is very different, especially from the early 1990s on, and the apologies that refer to these topics all use passive voice with no agent, which avoids taking responsibility. There is a third line of evidence within each text. The descriptions that are not about specific actionable offences are varied in language but often direct: The Presbyterian Church in Canada co-operated in this policy. or we did not support them adequately nor hear their cries for justice. (Presbyterian 1994) In the law, As Taft (2000) pointed out, to take responsibility as part of an apology is to become legally liable. Therefore, after lawsuits became a real possibility, many within a church (or advising a church) could have argued that to say publicly “We did it” would inevitably incur massive damages. In this view, to apologize fully would abrogate financial responsibility for the church. Some states in the U.S. have introduced “safe harbor” legislation that permits an apology without legal liability (Taft, 2000). However, these laws only refer to saying “I’m sorry” as an expression of sympathy; they specifically exclude any acknowledgement of responsibility. In other words, they encourage and protect equivocal apologies. If the threat of legal liability is the main reason for avoiding responsibility in an

Authors: Bavelas, Janet.
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their institutions and that indigenous children, who were now adults, would have rights
in this and other instances.2 A second line of evidence also points to concern about
legal liability: The United 1986 apology is exclusively about cultural and religious errors,
which may not be actionable or at least would not, at present, incur large damages.
Responsibility for physical and sexual abuse is very different, especially from the early
1990s on, and the apologies that refer to these topics all use passive voice with no
agent, which avoids taking responsibility. There is a third line of evidence within each
text. The descriptions that are not about specific actionable offences are varied in
language but often direct:
The Presbyterian Church in Canada co-operated in this policy.
or
we did not support them adequately nor hear their cries for justice.
(Presbyterian 1994)
In the law, As Taft (2000) pointed out, to take responsibility as part of an apology
is to become legally liable. Therefore, after lawsuits became a real possibility, many
within a church (or advising a church) could have argued that to say publicly “We did it”
would inevitably incur massive damages. In this view, to apologize fully would
abrogate financial responsibility for the church. Some states in the U.S. have
introduced “safe harbor” legislation that permits an apology without legal liability (Taft,
2000). However, these laws only refer to saying “I’m sorry” as an expression of
sympathy; they specifically exclude any acknowledgement of responsibility. In other
words, they encourage and protect equivocal apologies.
If the threat of legal liability is the main reason for avoiding responsibility in an


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