NEWS: Forgiving the unforgiveable

TALK_10_1On 1st December 2014, we held the last in our series of ’10 Conversations on Forgiveness’ at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, bringing what has been an immensely successful programme to a close.

At our final talk Marina Cantacuzino, founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, was in conversation with Richard McCann whose mother was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.

The evening began with a short film highlighting key moments from the previous nine conversations. Richard then told his story, beginning with the murder of his mother in 1975, just a few days before his sixth birthday. He spoke of how his childhood turned violent when he and his siblings were made to live with their abusive father. The audience was left with one particularly horrifying image of Richard’s father drowning the family dog in the bath.

As a result of his mother’s death Richard described his “spirit” as “badly damaged. Later he was dismissed from the army, started dealing in drugs and at one time even ended up in prison. The turning point came when his sister Sonja stabbed her boyfriend in self-defence at which point Richard felt compelled to tell their story. The result was his best-selling autobiography – Just A Boy – which would prove a catalyst to his healing.

When Marina asked Richard specifically about his relationship with his father, he explained that it wasn’t until the suicide of his sister Sonja in 2007 that he was finally able to forgive him. He described how seeing the grief on his father’s face as he broke the news to him, any past resentment just faded away. Forgiveness allowed Richard to have a relationship with his father again and in the seven years before his death in 2014 they grew closer. “It was still not the relationship I would have liked but I had accepted him as a human being”, he explained.

Forgiveness in relation to his mother’s murderer has been much trickier. Marina mentioned that when Richard first told his story in prisons, she had noticed that while there was no rage in his voice, neither was there any forgiveness. Instead, he had sounded almost ‘disconnected’ from Peter Sutcliffe. Richard agreed, saying that he had used this as a coping mechanism. He said he had often wondered if he should forgive Sutcliffe, but worried what his friends, family and the public would think since a strong narrative of retribution dominated the story.

TALK_10_4Again, Richard described a very specific incident which triggered his decision to forgive Sutcliffe. In 2010, he attended The Forgiveness Project’s first annual lecture delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He describes being “blown away” by Tutu’s experience of forgiveness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was hearing these powerful words that enabled him finally to forgive one of the most hated men in Britain. To an astonished St. Ethelburga’s audience, Richard declared that he had “no negative feelings” towards Peter Sutcliffe anymore.

Richard also described how, a few years ago, a journalist had rung him late one night to tell him that Sutcliffe was gravely ill. Asking “how do you feel about that?” Richard replied that he was sorry. It was not what the journalist expected or wanted and his comments were never reported. Forgiving the ‘unforgiveable’ is often not a popular decision.

The conversation was then opened to the audience who asked a number of questions, and shared their own experiences and thoughts. Jason, a facilitator for The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE prison programme asked Richard if he could ever move beyond his story and just be ‘Richard’. He answered that sometimes he could, but ultimately, “it’s who I am, I don’t think I’ll ever get away from my story.”

One audience member asked about Richard’s process of forgiving. Many of our previous panellists, have described this as a fluid process, but Richard spoke of two very definite events which prompted his ability to forgive instantaneously and irreversibly. For example, after hearing Desmond Tutu speak, he described forgiveness as “very sudden – in that instant I felt I had permission to forgive.” However, he also spoke about a long process which led up to this. Richard closed the discussion by describing himself, and his personal journey of forgiveness, as “still a work on progress” but one which has already brought him a measure of peace.

Because of the success of our Forgiveness Conversations we are planning a programme of events for next year. We hope to hold at least two more London conversations as well as to broaden our reach with a series of four conversations outside London; we hope this will allow more people to join the discussion.

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