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Pope Francis won’t apologize for abusive church-run schools in Canada, and lawmakers aren’t happy

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 25. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

TORONTO — Few leaders have embraced the power of an apology for historical wrongs quite as enthusiastically as Pope Francis and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The former has apologized for the “grave sins” of colonialism in Bolivia, the persecution of Italian Pentecostals and the church’s “failings” during the Rwandan genocide. The latter has said sorry for the execution of six indigenous chiefs by the colonial government of British Columbia, as well as decades of government-sanctioned discrimination against Canada’s LGBT civil servants.

But now, the two are at odds over an apology — or, rather, the lack of one.

Canadian lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a motion on Tuesday — the vote tally was 269-10 — to formally invite Francis to come to Canada and apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools system for indigenous children. Under that system, Canadian authorities removed more than 150,000 indigenous children from their homes from 1883 to 1998, sending them to boarding schools where they suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Roughly two-thirds of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the residential schools system for six years, included an apology from the pope among its 94 recommendations on ways to repair what it called an attempt at “cultural genocide.” But Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops said in a letter last month that the pope “felt he could not personally respond,” sparking fierce criticism.

“It was bishops who promoted the policy, it was the bishops who oversaw it and it was the bishops who worked hand-in-hand with the federal government and covered it up,” said Charles Angus, the lawmaker who introduced the motion, during a debate on the motion in Parliament last week.

Trudeau, who asked the pope to consider an apology during a May 2017 visit to the Vatican, said the decision left him “disappointed.” The Vatican’s representative in Canada did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.

Justin Trudeau apologizes for the brutal hanging of tribal chiefs 150 years ago

Bishops across Canada have offered a number of rationales for the pope’s decision.

Some argue that the papacy has sufficiently apologized for residential schools. They point to a meeting in 2009 during which Pope Benedict XVI told Phil Fontaine, then the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s largest indigenous organization, that he felt “sorrow” about the schools.

But lawmakers and indigenous groups say “sorrow” is not nearly enough. They want a formal papal apology like the landmark one issued by Benedict in 2010 to people sexually abused by clergymen in Ireland, or the more recent apologies Francis has offered.

“Hearing an apology directly from Pope Francis would have a profound impact for many of our people and would be an important act of healing and reconciliation, much like the apology delivered to the indigenous peoples of the Americas in 2015,” said Perry Bellegarde, the current national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The motion also calls on the church to pay the 25 million Canadian dollars it owes under a 2007 settlement between the Canadian government and the survivors of residential schools that ended thousands of lawsuits.

The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches, which ran many of the rest of the schools, apologized for their roles in the residential school system in the 1990s. Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology on behalf of the Canadian government in 2008.

Others worry that the pope, who depends on the counsel of bishops and prefers to make decisions when there is consensus, was given conflicting advice from bishops in Canada.

“In different parts of the country our relationships with indigenous people are different, and the things we hear from our indigenous people are different,” said Donald Bolen, an archbishop in Saskatchewan who supports the call for an apology, to broadcaster CBC.

Even those who support a papal apology have concerns. Some question whether the government has any business requesting an apology from the head of a religious group. Others wonder whether an apology called for in this way would be sincere.

Michael McLeod, a Liberal Party lawmaker who represents an area where he says the legacies of residential school are still felt, told Parliament that, although he agreed an apology was needed, “Forcing someone to apologize doesn’t really sit well with me.”

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