Sunday, January 11, 2004

In search of redemption

A contrite heart often lures forgiveness

Confession may be good for the soul, but it plays hell with the reputation.

Pete Rose, the local hero defended by many Cincinnatians as a point of civic pride, now stands revealed as a gambling addict who spit on the game he was supposed to love and spent 14 years lying through his teeth to his most loyal supporters.

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Can he find forgiveness from his betrayed fans? How about redemption?

There is a big difference. Forgiveness means letting go of the anger you feel toward someone and agreeing not to seek further punishment. Redemption means the sinner is restored to his former stature in your eyes.

Just how far can you go and still make a comeback?

"As a society we probably tolerate mistakes much more than cover-ups," says Paul Fiorelli, director of Xavier University's Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility. Lying is a natural defense when you get into trouble, but once done, it means that eventually you will have two things to atone for - the original misdeed and the lie.

"When a person comes forward and is open, honest, full of contrition and vulnerability, in other words, genuinely sorry, they tend to be forgiven a lot more easily," Fiorelli said. He points to Richard Nixon with Watergate and Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky. If they had come clean right away, many people might have offered up some "they're only human" sympathy. Instead they ended up as two of the most reviled politicians in recent American history.

And yet . . .

Both Nixon and Clinton managed to climb back from the bottoms of their respective pits (actually, Clinton is still climbing). Nixon managed to put the foundations of the republic at risk, left tape recorded evidence of his wrongdoing, and yet a lot of people thought of him as some sort of elder statesman by the time he died. Clinton looked the country right in the TV lens and told a whopper about not having sex with a White House intern. When DNA evidence proved otherwise he still managed to escape conviction at his impeachment trial. These days he kibitzes on world affairs from the sidelines with the credibility that only a former president can have.

Eventually both Nixon and Clinton confessed to their wrongdoings and admitted with obvious shame, or at least embarrassment, that they had been liars. Fiorelli believes it is the believability of such remorse that helps a person win back some measure of respect from the public. Genuine pain and suffering are often viewed by the public as a real key to redemption.

"Looking and acting remorseful helps. It's even better to actually be remorseful," Fiorelli said.

There are different ways to make acts of contrition that can lead to public redemption. Charles Colson, the Nixon staffer who plotted dirty tricks and created the infamous plumbers squad to do whatever was necessary to plug leaks, underwent a jailhouse conversion and became an evangelist. He now runs a prison ministry organization.

Michael Milken, the infamous "Junk Bond King" of the 1980s, went to prison for insider trading. After his release he set up a foundation to search for a cure for prostate cancer and became a philanthropist, giving away money to various education projects.

Some infamous wrongdoers seem to achieve a degree of forgiveness out of a sense of public weariness, or because, as in the case of John Hinkley, they seem so pathetic as to be harmless. Hinkley tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan because he wanted to impress a movie star he was obsessed with. Last month a judge let him out of a mental hospital for a while so he could go bowling with his parents. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond was a die-hard segregationist. Yet living to be 100 seemed to earn him a niche of fondness in the hearts of fellow senators, even those who were bitterly opposed to policies he espoused. That public fondness seemed to linger even after it was revealed he fathered a child 78 years ago with the 16-year-old black maid in his parents' house.

But some things may be beyond forgiveness. Check out the Hamilton County Sheriff Department's Web site. You will find the names and addresses of more than 800 registered sex offenders. These are people who theoretically have paid their "debts" with prison sentences, yet we demand the cops keep watching them forever and notify their neighbors whenever they move into a new neighborhood. Our fear is that by letting them have a fresh start we may just be offering them up fresh victims.

To err is human, to forgive is divine. That's what a lot of us learn in church. But what we have learned in real life is that sometimes even the Church can't be trusted. In the past few years the Catholic Church has been forced to confront a loss of credibility because it repeatedly allowed child-molesting priests to go back to their old ways. Faced with a loss of trust, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops took the unprecedented step of appointing auditors headed by a former FBI agent to verify that the church is now taking the corrective measures it promised. An audit released Tuesday found that some dioceses have not yet implemented church guidelines on dealing with abusive priests (see editorial on page F2).

That comes back to what Fiorelli says about coming clean if you expect people to ever get past your misdeeds.

"Whenever there is one of these public confessions, we always want to know: 'Are we getting the full story?' If we feel that we are . . . then I think we are willing to give a second chance," he said. "But if it comes out that they didn't tell the whole story; if they suspect you are only saying half the truth, or that you have some other motivation - like a book release - then people feel used and it is difficult to get them back."

Timing is also a key element in achieving public redemption. It's not enough to just be sorry. You have to act sorry, maybe for a long time. Nixon lived more or less in a self-imposed exile for years, venturing into the public eye only in carefully controlled settings. He wrote a lot about foreign affairs, where he was an acknowledged expert, and waited for people to come to him to ask for insights based on that expertise. Rose might do better to write a book about the art of hitting than his "prison without bars."

And true redemption may require a lifetime of penance. That may involve what Fiorelli describes as "occupational disqualification" - a ban from your life's work. While Pete Rose describes such a ban as a "death penalty," such punishment is fairly common in the business world. Crooked lawyers get disbarred. Bad doctors have their medical licenses revoked. Even Milken, the junk bond trader, was forever barred from the securities business.

Getting people to believe you are truly contrite and remorseful may require a willingness to give up what you most want.

Others who wanted to be redeemed

Charles Colson: Watergate figure who came up with the plumbers. Now an evangelist who runs prison ministries.

Michael Milken: Famed insider trader who, after serving jail time, became a philanthropist and now gives money away.

Strom Thurmond: Segregationist senator who was mostly unrepentent, but lived to 100 and grew on people with age.

Trent Lott: Senator who longed for the days when Strom Thurmond wasn't considered an embarrassment.

Dick Morris: Clinton advisor who dallied with prostitutes. Now writes a syndicated column.

Richard Nixon: President who ignored his oath but forgot to erase the tapes. Left White House one step ahead of impeachment. Jerry Springer: Went from patronizing prostitutes to being mayor, TV anchor and talk-show schlockmeister. Couldn't change image enough to run for U.S. Senate.

Bill Clinton: President who did so have sex with that woman.


David Wells is editor of the Enquirer editorial page. Contact him at (513) 768-8310; fax: (513) 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.

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