On Atonement and Forgiveness


We’ve all said and done things we regret, words we wish we had never uttered, casual remarks intended or not, that harm a friend or family member, perhaps even an unintended impulsive physical blow to a sibling or a child. We wish afterward that we could somehow take the words or actions back, reverse time and avoid harming someone, but it’s too late. No amount of remorse can erase an act no matter how much we wish it could. So we take the next step. We ask for forgiveness.

We go through life doing things in haste, under pressure, in anger, in retaliation, usually without much thought and without premeditation. We hope that with sincerity, people we have harmed will forgive us and, often, they do. The kind of harm we cause is usually overcome or forgotten. It does not rise to the level of unforgivable.

But what happens when the person who has been hurt won’t forgive and forget? What happens when they don’t accept our apology? When friends don’t forget or the hurt is too deep to forgive? How does that feel? Can you forgive yourself for the harm you’ve caused if the person you’ve hurt refuses to forgive you?

For thirty three years, I worked inside the state prison. I met thousands of men and women and came to know and care about many of them. Some of them committed serious crimes and some have no remorse for the crimes they committed. They believe they were the victims, that they had to do what they did for a variety of reasons: to get even or to get respect. Others knew immediately that what they did was wrong and wish they could undo it. They want desperately to explain how they feel and wish they were able to seek forgiveness from their victims and those who loved them. But usually they can’t and they cannot forgive themselves. They live with what they have done for the rest of their lives.

If you have never met someone who has been incarcerated and have had little or no experience with offenders and the criminal justice system, your image of an offender is probably based on the media. You read about a sensational crime, a murder or a rape, and imagine that the perpetrator is a monster.

But if you had the chance to meet people in prison, you would know that, with very few exceptions, they are people very much like us. They are our children, our neighbors, people we’ve gone to school with or worked with. Most never had some of the advantages growing up that we have had. Many of them want to ask for forgiveness from their victims but they cannot. They have to live with their regret much as their victims’ families live with their grief.

On Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness from God for sins against him, but he cannot forgive us for sins against another. So we ask those we have hurt for forgiveness.

When that is not possible, or is withheld, the pain we feel is hard to bear. I’ve known some of those people and, while my heart is always with the victim, in some cases, I feel the same pain for the very real loss that the perpetrator experiences as well.

I’ll tell you four short stories about real people and ask that you think about whether you would forgive them for their crimes if they asked.

A young man went out with some friends one night, drank too much, drove home and, on the way, struck a vehicle stopped on the side of the road. A brother and sister had stopped to repair a flat tire. The brother was struck and killed. The perpetrator was not so different from the boy he killed. He did not have a criminal history. He was immediately remorseful, but that made little difference in his sentencing and no difference in the feelings of the victim’s family. Their loss was intense regardless. The sister of the dead boy was traumatized by his death and the young perpetrator wanted desperately to ask for her forgiveness, but mediation between an offender and the victim is very difficult to manage. With assistance from many counselors, a mediation session was arranged and both the victim and the perpetrator found some peace. But mediation is the exception. More often, the victim never forgives and anger destroys the lives of everyone involved. And the perpetrator, growing old in prison, has never been able to forgive himself.

The mother of an 11-year-old girl allows her to live with her boyfriend’s family because the mother’s boyfriend doesn’t want the girl around the house. The boy moves on to another girlfriend and the then 13-year-old girl is left behind. Her friends encourage her anger and, when the opportunity arises, shove a gun into her hand. She shoots and kills the new girlfriend and is sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Two lives are lost – the dead girl and a 13-year-old whose childhood and young adulthood is lost forever. She will never know forgiveness for the life she took. And society took away much of her life for a crime she committed when she was far too young to understand the meaning of her act.

An 18-year-old joins a gang seeking the love and support his own family could not provide. He and some others retaliate against another gang for some insult or slight that means something only to them and someone is killed. He is arrested and charged for a murder that he may or may not have committed himself.

In prison, he lives in isolation, the fate of all incarcerated gang members, where he slowly loses everything. Many years later, as he grew older and more mature, exposed to education and mindfulness in prison, his remorse grew stronger and stronger. He will die in prison for his youthful impulsive act of violence. His life is also lost.

A young mother who is a drug addict neglects her child and stands by when her boyfriend abuses the child. The child dies and the mother is incarcerated for 2nd degree murder. In prison, she gets off drugs and gradually begins to understand how devastating her addiction has been. She enters drug treatment and education and grieves for her lost child. Can she seek atonement? How does she ever find forgiveness and peace for herself?

These are people who have committed the most heinous of crimes. They took the lives of others. Do they deserve forgiveness from their victims? How can they ever atone for their sins? In our world, they will never be forgiven or forgive themselves.

So what is the lesson for us? Think about someone in your life – an old friend, a relative, someone you were once close to but no longer see. If there is some lingering doubt about why you separated based on a perceived or real slight, a hurt feeling, then maybe the time has come to contact that person. Unlike so many of the people I’ve known in prison, we are lucky. We can ask to be forgiven.

Roberta Richman (rrichman@cox.net) retired in 2012 from the position of Assistant Director of Rehabilita-tive Services for the R.I. Department of Corrections.

Editor’s note: Ms. Richman presented this d’var Torah at URI Hillel on Yom Kippur.