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Juliet Guichon is assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary

Most people believe that the Dalhousie Dentistry students' Facebook words were abhorrent. The students who wrote them probably agree.

The resulting harm extends beyond their female classmates, to all members of Dalhousie University; the public; the Canadian dental profession; and the accused students' families.

The Dalhousie President's statement that some of the accused students are at risk of self-harm is perhaps not surprising. Ever since their words became public, they have probably felt adrift in a sea of shame, humiliation, regret and fear.

As the process by which the Dalhousie addresses the matter becomes news itself, and Dalhousie refuses to release the accused students' names to two provincial licensing bodies, we still have not heard from the young men involved. Yet they are best positioned to reduce the harm all around.

They could apologize – and not just to their female classmates. By apologizing, they could show their faces, accept responsibility and seek to right the wrongs.

Nova Scotia's Apology Act means that their apology would not be admissible in any court as evidence of fault or liability. An apology would help restore the relationships of everyone affected. It would help reveal the nature of the students' character and whether they have insight.

This situation is relatively new. The 'locker room' talk that was once accepted as trivial by many males, has in our time ramped up to include 'jokes' about rape, perhaps because of similar messages online against women, and because of crude films like Hall Pass, from which the chloroform line probably came.

The misogynistic words, which might have been only spoken in the past, were published on the Internet, and after Winnipeg teen Rinelle Harper survived a violent sexual assault, and allegations were made against Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby of violence against women. The Canadian public has no tolerance for men behaving badly toward women. Moreover, the dental students were at a renowned Canadian university, about to graduate to become trusted health care providers.

Even as the situation has many aspects, it is simple in this way: the accused Dalhousie students have wronged many people with their words. Wrongdoers should apologize, the sooner the better.

To most observers of this unfolding drama, the accused students are anonymous people whose published words are the only evidence of their true nature. Consequently, they can easily be caricatured and denigrated as women-haters unworthy to continue as Dalhousie students, let alone to become health care providers.

Of course, these young men are more than their disgusting words. They are sons and likely brothers, perhaps of sisters. Their probable feelings of guilt and anguish could further isolate them when unity in sorrow could be beneficial. Everyone has lost here.

The people of Atlantic Canada have a health and financial stake in the graduation of fine dentists to serve them. Most people who are young and who suffer a great deal can learn from their mistakes. These events could mark a new departure for them, leading to a life wholly different, and in greater service to others, than they might have contemplated before they published their vile words.

If the Dalhousie accused students deserve sufficient public forgiveness to become dentists, then they must earn it. It will be a long road back but we ought to encourage the men to take the first step.

Psychiatrist Aaron Lazare contends that apologies can help everyone because of their power to "heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness", while they also "diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame" felt by offending parties.

Apologies have this power only if they are real. Real apologies entail that the offenders take responsibility for the harmful action, denounce the action as being wrong, express regret or remorse to the aggrieved parties, sincerely request forgiveness of those wronged, and work toward reconciliation including reparation.

Dalhousie's restorative justice process will, hopefully, lead to good outcomes for the female students who agreed to it and for the accused students themselves.

The female dentistry students, the greater Dalhousie community, the public, the Canadian dental profession, and the men's families all deserve an apology.

The accused students have an important opportunity to address their offending words with sincere and better words. The manner in which their apology is offered publicly will make all the difference, not least to the accused students who, by definition, are still learning.