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Pope apologizes for ‘deplorable conduct’ of some Catholics in residential schools

Indigenous leaders from Canada's First Nations spoke after a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 31. (Video: Reuters)
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VATICAN CITY — After years of resisting calls to do so, Pope Francis on Friday apologized for the “deplorable conduct” of some Catholics in Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children, saying he was “deeply grieved” by the stories of “suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse” from survivors.

Speaking to an audience that included an Indigenous delegation that traveled from Canada to the Vatican this week to press for an apology, Francis said he felt “shame” for the role Catholics have had “in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”

“All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the pope said at the Apostolic Palace. “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

Francis reiterated a pledge made last year to visit Canada, where he said he would be “better able” to express his “closeness.”

The pope has been under renewed pressure to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system after several Indigenous communities in Canada in the last year said that ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near the sites of former schools.

Residential schools survivors to meet pope amid demands for apology

Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families — often by force — to attend the government-funded, church-run institutions, which aimed to assimilate them in what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide” in a 2015 report.

It said children were punished for practicing their traditions or speaking their languages, and that many suffered various forms of abuse. It identified thousands of children who died at the schools, including from disease, malnourishment, by suicide or while trying to escape. Some were buried in unmarked graves.

The last school closed in the 1990s. Most were run by Catholic entities. The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada, which ran some schools, apologized for their roles. While some Catholic entities and local church leaders had apologized, Francis and his predecessor had previously expressed sorrow but stopped short of an apology.

A papal apology on Canadian soil was among the commission’s 94 calls to action.

An unmarked gravesite drags a not-so-distant horror back into the spotlight. Is this a real reckoning?

Francis met separately this week with Métis, Inuit and First Nations delegates. The delegation, whose visit was delayed by the pandemic, was made up of Indigenous leaders, elders, youth and residential school survivors, who shared stories of their residential school experiences and the effects that still ripple in their communities.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national organization representing Inuit in Canada, said the apology was “long overdue” and that he was “touched” by how the pope “expressed his sorrow.”

“In Pope Francis’s statement today, I see that we were heard. I hear that we were heard,” Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron told reporters. “This week has truly shown that there is power in our stories and there is power in our truths.”

The delegates also pressed Francis to release records that could help identify the children who died at the schools and criticized the Church for failing to meet its obligations under a class-action settlement with residential school survivors from 2006.

Others called for the return of Indigenous artifacts and for the revocation of centuries-old papal bulls that enshrined what’s known as the doctrine of discovery and were used to justify colonization in the Americas.

The pope did not comment on those demands. Bishop William McGrattan, vice president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters that the Canadian bishops do not support the “underlying concepts” that supported the papal bulls and that the Vatican is studying perspectives on the issue.

As he often does, Francis lamented “the many forms of political, ideological and economic colonization” that “still exist in the world, driven by greed and thirst for profit, with little concern for peoples.”

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, said the pope “smartly framed” the issue of the Church’s role in the residential school system “inside a wider picture that he’s been working on for many years now, which he calls ‘ideological colonization.’”

“He believes that, as Catholics, we’re part of the historical problem, but we’re also part of the solution, [so] this is a clear connection to what he’s always been saying, but especially to the Amazon synod,” he added, referring to the meeting of Catholic bishops in 2019 that discussed a range of issues facing the Amazon region, including the importance of protecting Indigenous culture.

What to know about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves found nearby

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic who personally appealed to the pope for an apology in 2017, said on Friday that he acknowledged the apology and looked forward to Francis coming to Canada to deliver it in person. Ottawa apologized in 2008 for its role in the residential school system.

Francis did not provide a date for his visit to Canada but joked that it would probably not be in winter. He said he derived “joy” from the veneration of the delegates for St. Anne and “hoped” to be with them on her feast day this year, which is in July.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was among the first to speak publicly about the abuse he experienced in residential schools, said it was a “monumental” day.

“So many people have said in the past that they can’t begin the healing process that would lead to true reconciliation without hearing the pope say, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said. “We’re witness to that moment today, and I sincerely believe that people now have an opportunity … to forgive. But forgiveness is just as difficult as to apologize.”

Coletta reported from Toronto.

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