The Washington Post

A papal apology, belated but apt

Speaking to Canada’s Native peoples, Pope Francis acknowledg­es words are not enough.


WHEN ERROR, abuse or crimes are committed, the perpetrato­r’s contrition and atonement are first steps and preconditi­ons of any possible reconcilia­tion. That’s true when harm is caused by individual­s or institutio­ns — even ones as vast and magisteria­l as the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, more than any of his predecesso­rs, has grasped that. He showed so again this week in delivering a profound and moving apology to Indigenous Canadian peoples whose culture, communitie­s and children were victimized by what he called an “evil committed by so many Christians.”

The pontiff ’s in-person apology was perhaps too long in coming — at least three decades after reports surfaced of sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by children at church-run residentia­l schools in Canada. Beyond the abuse — an act of “cultural genocide,” in the words of Canada’s Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission, which delivered its conclusion­s in 2015 — thousands of children died and were buried at the schools, usually in unmarked graves, amid circumstan­ces often hidden from history.

Although the government founded and funded those schools, they were run by churches. Most were Catholic-operated, and their legacy of horror, over the course of a century starting in the 1880s, is a staggering testament to the collateral damage caused by forced assimilati­on with Canada’s dominant White European culture. The very purpose of the schools was to obliterate the linguistic and spiritual cornerston­es of Indigenous communitie­s, an act of long-lived brutality.

The pope acknowledg­ed that history forthright­ly, although not as completely as some Indigenous leaders might have wanted. For years, they have pushed for an apology not only for the role played by the Catholic orders that ran many of the schools — finally delivered earlier this year, when Indigenous leaders met with Francis at the Vatican — but also for the church’s own institutio­nal complicity. Moreover, while the Canadian federal government has paid several billion dollars in reparation­s to former residentia­l school students under a class-action lawsuit, and Protestant denominati­ons chipped in millions more, the Catholic Church, which ran about two-thirds of the roughly 130 residentia­l schools, has contribute­d a relative pittance.

Still, words are important, and the pope’s were largely on the mark when, in the first public appearance of his weeklong trip to Canada on Monday, he spoke in a powwow circle at the site of a former Indian residentia­l school south of Edmonton, Alberta. The school was founded by Catholic missionari­es.

Addressing himself to “every Native community and person,” Francis expressed his “shame” and said he was “deeply sorry,” eliciting applause from Indigenous people in attendance. He asked forgivenes­s “for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communitie­s cooperated, not least through their indifferen­ce, in projects of cultural destructio­n and forced assimilati­on promoted by the government­s of that time, which culminated in the system of residentia­l schools.”

Just as important, he acknowledg­ed that apologies are not sufficient, and said that he agreed that “concrete” actions would be required to achieve a full reconcilia­tion. The onus therefore remains on the Vatican, in this papacy or the next, to make good on Francis’s words.

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