Pope Francis made a face-to-face apology to representatives of North American indigenous nations Friday after the tribal leaders traveled to the Vatican to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the boarding school system that was part of an effort to erase indigenous identity in the New World.
The Pope also said he hoped to make a trip to visit Canada — the tribal leaders’ home — later this year. The Associated Press reported that Francis “begged” the leaders for forgiveness for the “deplorable” conditions native children were subjected to in Catholic-run residential schools. The AP continued:
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.
After hearing their stories all week, Francis told the Indigenous that the colonial project ripped children from their families, cutting off their roots, traditions and culture and provoking inter-generational trauma that is still being felt today. He said it was a “counter-witness” to the same Gospel that the residential school system purported to uphold.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Francis said. “And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”
The New York Times reports that the Pope’s response was offered in part as a response to the hundreds of bodies discovered at unmarked graves at the residential schools in the last year.
His apology comes after Canada was jolted last year by the discovery of evidence that more than 1,000 people, most of them children, were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of some of the former schools.
“I feel shame — sorrow and shame — for the role” that Catholics played “in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” Francis said.
The Catholic Church operated about 70 percent of the schools in the system. Whether the Vatican knew about the extent of abuses at the schools while they were open is unclear. The Catholic orders that operated them have been slow to open their records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, a Canadian archive and research body.
CBS News’s reporting of the meeting said that the trip was years in the making for the tribal leaders. As part of the dialogue, Metis National Council President Cassidy Caron presented the Pope with a book sharing her people’s stories.
The three groups of Indigenous met separately with Francis over several hours this week, culminating with Friday’s audience.
Francis spoke in Italian and the Indigenous had English translations to read along. The president of the Metis National Council, Cassidy Caron, said the Metis elder sitting next her burst into tears upon hearing what she said was a long-overdue apology.
“The pope’s words today were historic, to be sure. They were necessary, and I appreciate them deeply,” Caron told reporters in St. Peter’s Square. “And I now look forward to the pope’s visit to Canada, where he can offer those sincere words of apology directly to our survivors and their families, whose acceptance and healing ultimately matters most.”
In Canada, some tribal leaders were surprised to hear that the Pope had apologized. CTV reports:
For Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, hearing Pope Francis saying sorry was a welcome surprise.
“I didn’t expect an apology,” said Phillip. “I thought the Vatican would continue to just stonewall the apology.”
“It represents a fundamental and first step along the path of genuine reconciliation,” he said.
Still, some said the apology would feel more sincere offered on Canadian soil instead of having indigenous leaders go to the Vatican to solicit it.
Bev Sellars is a survivor of the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, which closed down in 1981 after 90 years in operation. She went on to publish her traumatic school experiences in a book, titled “They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School.”
Earlier this week, Sellars told CTV News an apology from the Pope would be more meaningful if it happened in Canada, where the trauma took place.
“An apology should be forthcoming, without people having to go and say, ‘You need to apologize,’” said Sellars. “It’s not like he doesn’t know (the history).”