The Art of the Non-Apology

As little as one can foresee a pandemic, or an economic crisis, or the onset of winter in December, excitement about one’s own person is just as unpredictable. What does the public know about the burdens and duties of a position like mine? Demands for apologies for supposed missteps seem grotesque in this respect. But just as one must occasionally sacrifice a goat or the firstborn to a cruel god, one must now and then make an apology as a sacrifice to the outrage god of public opinion.

The expert knows that clever wording can smooth the waters and redirect outrage without having to result in personal or even material sacrifice. One chooses words that make everything sound right, yet never get the point across. And that is the art of non-apology. I have identified a total of 40 artifices that can help calm the pack, but actually really apologize. I hereby present two of these artifices.

The following text is an excerpt from the book I will publish in the fall of 2021:

40 Artifices for ministers, managers and other morons who screwed up and now don’t understand the fuss.

13th Artifice: It happened, but I am the real victim

If you are the master of many sheep, then it can be very irritating when yapping dogs from outside disturb the peace, and do not let their own shepherd dogs do their work. In the nature of things, black sheep cannot be prevented. And if they exist, God must have willed them so. So what is a simple cardinal to do about it?

That’s what Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki must have thought when he was forced to commission an expert report that would shed light on sexual violence within the archdiocese. But then there were delays, and months after the report was completed, it still lay unpublished on the cardinal’s desk. The Cardinal, not the desk, pondered the contents, which included a number of inconveniences that required further ‘investigation’. Then finally, after months of intense brooding, in December 2020, the Cardinal gave March 2021 as a much anticipated release date. What are another three months after two years of investigation when the Catholic Church thinks in terms of millennia? Even the most obdurate critics, probably all pagans or Pharisees anyway, must understand that.

Woelki voiced his frustration about this unfair treatment in public at the 2020 Christmas Mass, because critics did not want to or could not understand that ‘methodological deficiencies’ in the report had to be ironed out and would thus not be published until March of the following year. A top performance anyway, considering that all this happened during a pandemic.

This discomfort was expressed from the Cardinal’s statement to media, and honestly, who can blame him that the pure guardian over his flock was not particularly pleased, now had to turn the cheek himself?

“What those affected by sexual violence and you have had to endure in the last days and weeks before Christmas in connection with the handling of the expert report on coming to terms with sexualized violence in our archdiocese, what you have had to endure in terms of criticism about it and, in particular, criticism of me as a person – for all that I ask your forgiveness.”

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Cologne

It is obvious even to anyone who does not want to see and blindly believes. The real victims of sexual abuse by church representatives – i.e. children in the care of the church – are not the victims of abuse themselves, but first of all the flock who knew nothing about it and now have to watch how their shepherd – the cardinal – becomes the victim of unjustified accusations and criticism.

But not only these who have to witness the suffering of this representative of Christ on earth are victims, there would be others, Woelki added:

He also asked priests and all those involved in the community to apologize for also being hit by the criticism, even though it was directed at the archdiocese – and especially at himself personally.

So many victims, because of a few black sheep, who has time to pity abused children? There was still something a bit wrong with the fine-tuning of the apology, so there was another ‘apology of the apology’ right away as a result:

Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has admitted mistakes in dealing with abuse offenses and in the crisis communication of the past weeks. “I have also been guilty of this. I am sorry for that from the bottom of my heart,” the archbishop said in a video message. “It was and is my concern to consistently come to terms with it.”

The mistakes happened not in failures of supervisory duty and personnel policy of the Catholic Church, which had led to the abuse of minors, but in the processing and crisis communication. Not surprisingly, as a result of this ‘apology’, the Church is again victimized. Far too many people now wanted to leave the Catholic Church, bringing down the servers for registering to leave.

31st Artifice: I apologize if you value it

At business universities, students learn in the first course how supply and demand determine prices. If demand is greater than supply, the price rises. If demand is smaller, the price falls. Intuitively, the mayor of Feldkirch in Vorarlberg, Wolfgang Matt, had recognized this when it came to the value of excuses. Why bother apologizing if no one values it? Sounds obvious. But what was it actually about? For that, we need to talk about the value of vaccine doses and human lives in the face of a pandemic.

Indeed, the ÖVP mayor Matt was vaccinated at the beginning of the COVID vaccinations, when his name had not even appeared on the list of those eligible for vaccination. Neither had all the eligible over-eighty-year-olds, or the nursing home residents of his town, nor the caregivers been vaccinated, but he had already received a dose. He had simply jumped the gun – at least, that’s what his enviers said. He, in turn, saw it quite differently. He had been provided with a surplus vaccination dose at the end of the day, which would otherwise have had to be thrown away. Just as one does not throw away old bread, but still eats it as toast, it would be the same with vaccine doses. It had not occurred to him to call other authorized persons and bring them to the vaccination center.

In the news program ZIB2, to which he had been invited, he got involved in some contradictions about the exact course of events when asked by the presenter Armin Wolf. Matt felt that this criticism was somewhat unfair, since he described himself as someone who was “self-critical” and who “didn’t have a stone to throw”. Above all, he said, it “hurt his heart. He had not thought of resigning, and apologizing was a different matter.

“I can apologize if people value it.”

Wolfgang Matt, Mayor of Feldkirch

From the reactions of the people and the newspaper reports, it was clear that ‘people attached importance to it’. The mayor of the small town in the west of the country, with a population of 34,000, did not seem entirely comfortable with the unexpected public attention. It came as a surprise to him that he was to be grilled for twelve minutes in the half-hour, nationwide late-night news program of the ORF for his selfless sacrifice to save the vaccine doses. He would get his second vaccination dose when it was his turn, he said glumly in conclusion. Sometimes the excitement is not worth it.

ZIB 2 Wolfgang Matt zum Vorwurf der “Bürgermeister-Impfung” 19.01.2021,

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