The Catholic Church must atone for its role in residential schools
According to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, the remains of 215 children have been found in the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. It’s grotesque, heartbreaking but — if we’re honest — not completely surprising. As we peel away the layers of lies and myths surrounding the treatment of Indigenous people in this country, few horrors seem impossible.
Residential schools and the damage they caused still form an open wound, and while apologies don’t fully heal, they do at least help begin some sort of closure. Which is why the reluctance of the Roman Catholic Church to show official and public contrition is so painful. This B.C. school was run by that church from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took charge. It was closed nine years later.
The Catholic Church wasn’t alone in the residential school affair, but it is it alone in refusing to fully acknowledge its crimes. In 1986 the United Church stated, “We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.”
Seven years later, Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, issued a profoundly moving document: “I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God … I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.”
Such apologies were requested in the 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis personally to make such a statement when the two leaders met. Indeed, the House of Commons voted by a margin of 269-10 to formally invite the Pope to reconsider his reluctance.
Francis has said that he takes the issue “seriously,” but that “after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond.” In 1991, the Canadian Bishops said, “We are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced” at the residential schools, and two years later added that “various types of abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church.” But that’s it, and it’s just not enough.
One of the central obstacles is that a church already mired in legal and financial troubles regarding abuse cases is frightened of the repercussions that might follow after a formal apology regarding residential schools. It’s already been asked to honour its financial obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and to raise $25 million for Indigenous healing, as demanded in the residential schools settlement of 2007. That simply hasn’t happened.
While Pope Francis is progressive on many issues, he’s been worryingly opposed to acknowledging the church’s failings. In 2017, for example, he refused to apologize for the church’s history of sexual and physical abuse of children in Chile, and only changed his position after enormous public pressure.
Beyond the financial and legal consequences, there is also the issue of the church’s reputation. While many Catholics, and many leaders within the church, are ashamed at the very idea of the residential school system, conservative elements within the church see it more as a noble effort that was badly handled than an ideal that was flawed in itself. They are tired of what they see as apologizing for well-intended failure as opposed to immorality, and still look to their missionary work as important and ethical. That is where they are so out-of-step with other churches, and public opinion.
It may well take a new Papacy to change all this, and a Pope with the courage to ignore both the more traditional elements in his church, and his financial advisers who are terrified of prolonged compensation battles. That’s tragic not just for the victims of the residential schools, but for the message of Christianity as well. (Michael Coren, iPolitics)