Lockerbie Bomber Fails Forgiveness Test, Not Vick

Forgiveness and compassion are in the air.

First, NFL quarterback , Michael Vick, who served 18 months of a 23-month sentence in federal prison for running an illegal dog fighting ring, has made a comeback, vowing to work for the Humane Society of the United States and speaking out against animal cruelty.

The 29-year-old is out of the doghouse now, signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to play football once again.

VIDEO: A 1988 report on the Pan Am 103 bombing.
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Then, Susan Atkins, the notorious member of the Manson family, who held down pregnant Sharon Tate as the actress was stabbed 16 times in 1969, sought compassion.

Now 61, Atkins says she's a born-again Christian and will go before a California parole board in September to seek release because she is gravely ill with a brain tumor.

There's also Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted of the 1988 Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people, who was released from a Scottish jail this week to return to his native Libya to die of terminal cancer.

Upon the release Thursday, the Scottish justice secretary said he had been motivated by Scottish values to show mercy.

But forgiveness is a tricky business. The public is not always ready to embrace these civil decisions, and ethicists -- religious or otherwise -- say it takes more than the sweep of a judge's hand to wipe out a heinous crime.

"At least in two of the cases, what is common is they are both dying of cancer," said Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "Society feels cancer is punishment enough and, frankly, the prisons don't want to take care of their medical needs."

In Catholicism, which veered from the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" tradition in Judaism, forgiveness has been defined by a precise mechanism, Reese said.

You've got to be sorry for your sins. "God may forgive you," Reese said. "But we cannot welcome you back if you kill your wife and you're not sorry about it."

Confess your sins -- either before your community or your God.

Have a "firm purpose of amendment," Reese said. "If you are a mafia hit man, you can come in and confess the murder, but if you are planning on doing another one next week, that doesn't work."

Make penance. In a civil society, that means jail time, or community service or, as in Vick's case, making restitution or restoration by helping to prevent animal cruelty.

Vick an Easier Call Than Lockerbie Bomber

By that Catholic check list, Vick is off the hook. Some would say Atkins' crime is more heinous and her penance more severe, but "you've got to make a human judgment about whether her confession is sincere or not," Reese said.

Atkins, a former Charles Manson disciple, famously expressed no remorse in the Tate murder: "She [Tate] asked me to let her baby live," Atkins said at the time. "I told her I didn't have mercy for her."

"The parole board will have to decide if she is a danger to society, so that's a judgment call," Reese said.

But al-Megrahi -- whose release has drawn the most public criticism -- raises a question mark.

Al-Megrahi, 57, insisted he was innocent and has not shown compassion to the victims of the crash, many of whom were U.S. college students. Serving only eight years of his life sentence, he has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.

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