Raymond J. de Souza: Historically inaccurate to suggest Catholic Church hasn’t apologized for residential schools

National Post [Toronto ON, Canada]

June 4, 2021

By Father Raymond J. de Souza

All of the dioceses that had residential schools and the religious orders involved apologized decades ago, and those expressions have been renewed in recent days

There has been much commentary about a Catholic apology for residential schools, even in these pages, that I prefer to think is ill-informed rather than ill-motivated.

While I speak for no one but myself, and certainly not for the Catholic bishops, much less the Holy See, it is understandable that many have asked me about how and where the Catholic Church should apologize for its role in the grave offences against human dignity that occurred in residential schools.

All three parts of that are important: “Catholic Church,” “how” and “where.”

Notice that “if” and “when” are not part of the question. The Catholic Church, like other Christian communities, has been engaged in reconciliation and healing for 30 years. It made sincere apologies not long after the issue came to wider public attention.

“We are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced. We have heard their cries of distress, feel their anguish and want to be part of the healing process,” read a statement issued by Canadian bishops and leaders of religious orders that participated in the schools.

That was in 1991, and was quoted in the submission the Canadian bishops made in 1995 to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, more than a decade before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established.

The various religious orders that ran the schools also issued apologies. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran the Kamloops Indian Residential School, included this in their detailed four-page apology, which was issued in 1991:

“We apologize for the part we played in the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism that was part of the mentality with which the peoples of Europe first met the Aboriginal peoples and which consistently has lurked behind the way the Native peoples of Canada have been treated by civil governments and by the churches.”

Why are these forthright statements, issued three decades in the past, set aside by those who claim that somehow the Catholic Church refuses to apologize or seek forgiveness?

Partly it’s because of confusion about structure. There is no “Canadian Catholic Church,” of which there is a single national leader. There is no equivalent to, for example, the moderator of the United Church of Canada. There are some 70 dioceses, or territories, each led by its own bishop.

Then there are religious orders, like the Oblates and the Jesuits — who also issued an apology to Indigenous peoples in 1991 — which are not territorial. All of the dioceses that had residential schools and the religious orders involved apologized decades ago, and those expressions have been renewed in recent days.

In the years since the TRC report was issued, there have been literally hundreds of reconciliation meetings held by Christian institutions, Catholic and otherwise.

Those who allege that the “Canadian Catholic Church” has never apologized are simply mistaken about how the Catholic Church is structured. All the relevant structures — individual dioceses, religious orders and the associations of bishops — have done so. Indeed, many did so in their submissions to the TRC.

“I wish to apologize sincerely and profoundly to the survivors and their families, as well as to all those subsequently affected, for the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of those Catholics who perpetrated mistreatment of any kind in these residential schools,” said Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver to the TRC in 2013. (The Kamloops residential school was within the archdiocese of Vancouver’s boundaries when it was established.)

What then about the pope? In 2009, after years of sincere dialogue between Catholic bishops in Canada and Indigenous representatives, Pope Benedict XVI received a delegation at the Vatican. It was led by Phil Fontaine, then-national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. It was a historic moment of contrition, sorrow, reconciliation and healing. Fontaine’s address on that occasion is one of the most poignant and illuminating on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

At the time, it was considered the “final piece” of a nearly 20-year process of reconciliation that “closed the book,” in the words of Fontaine. So all the parties were confident that a good measure of healing had taken place: apologies were offered, and apologies were accepted.

The TRC, which began its work in earnest after the Benedict-Fontaine meeting, did not accept that process or its outcome. It did not reject what had been done, or question if it had been done, but judged that how and where it had been done was inadequate.

The TRC said that Pope Francis should appear in Canada within one year to offer another apology. For his part, Fontaine in 2018, without “diminishing” anything in the 2009 process, aligned himself with the TRC’s recommendation.

The TRC’s position is that a papal apology in Rome is not sufficient; it has to be made in Canada. Yet papal visits are not common events. The first to Canada was in 1984, though Pope John Paul II returned for an overnight visit in 1987 to meet with Indigenous peoples in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., as fog had prevented him from landing there a few years earlier. John Paul returned in 2002, but that was for World Youth Day, not so much to visit the country itself. Benedict XVI did not visit Canada.

There is no doubt that if Pope Francis were to visit Canada, he would meet with Indigenous leaders and renew, in his own name, the apologies made over the last three decades. But he is not visiting Canada — just as he has not visited Germany or France or even his own country of Argentina.

I have no doubt that if the TRC removed its demand that Pope Francis appear in Canada, another papal apology would be forthcoming. Why would he not repeat what Pope Benedict XVI said, the Oblates said, the Jesuits said, Archbishop Miller said and the Canadian bishops have said?

Pope Francis is hardly reluctant on this subject. He has spoken on other occasions and in other places about the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by Catholics.

What then do I think about papal expressions of contrition and requests for forgiveness? I am in favour of them, as was Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis.

In the global celebrations for the year 2000, John Paul insisted that requests for pardon be given a prominent place on the agenda. I was in St. Peter’s when he led the entire Catholic Church in what he would call a “healing of memories,” leading repentance for times when Catholics “have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”

I count that experience as a great moment of grace. And it has been so whenever it has been repeated.