Rome: Pope Francis has apologised for abuses that members of the Roman Catholic Church committed at Canada’s residential schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend for decades and aimed to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream European culture.
Speaking to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican on Friday, Pope Francis said he felt “sorrow and shame” for the role Catholics played in the many harms that Indigenous children suffered while attending the schools.
“I feel sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” the pope said.
“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, Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
His comments come after a delegation of Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors and youth travelled to Rome, Italy this week to hold meetings with the pope and seek an apology for the church’s role in the system.
Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children to attend residential schools between the late 1800s and 1990s. The children were stripped of their languages and culture, separated from siblings, and subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Thousands are believed to have died while attending the institutions, most of which were run by the Roman Catholic Church. A federal commission of inquiry into Canada’s residential schools, known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), concluded in 2015 that the system amounted to “cultural genocide”.
While other churches apologised for their role in residential schools, the Catholic Church had yet to offer such an apology – despite longstanding pleas from survivors, their families and communities.
Chief Gerald Antoine, head of the First Nations delegation in Rome, told reporters in the Italian capital that Pope Francis’s “long-overdue apology” was “a historical first step”.
“However [it is] only a first step,” Antoine said, explaining that to meet one of the TRC’s Calls to Action (PDF), the pope needs to deliver an apology in Canada. “The next step is for the Holy Father to apologise to our family at their home,” Antoine said.
That was echoed by Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a group that represents more than 60,000 Inuit in Canada. “Today we have a piece of the puzzle,” Obed said during a news conference in Rome later in the day.
“We have a heartfelt expression from the church that was delivered by Pope Francis in an empathetic and caring way. I was touched by the way in which he expressed his sorrow, and also the way in which he condemned the actions of the church,” Obed said. “There is much more to do, and so an apology is a part of a larger picture.”
Pope Francis told the Indigenous delegates that he would travel to Canada. Canadian media reported that the visit is likely to happen in late July.
Indigenous leaders in Canada have called on the Catholic Church, as well as the federal government, to release all their records related to residential schools, as communities seek justice for the abuses that occurred. Many also have demanded financial reparations from the church.
Those calls for accountability have grown louder after unmarked graves were discovered at several former residential school sites across Canada since May of last year. Searches of former school grounds are ongoing.