Diane Francis: Penance is required for the church’s residential school sins

Financial Post [Toronto ON, Canada]

July 5, 2021

By Diane Francis

Guaranteeing the security and well-being of children in a society is a sacred trust. Both church and state were to blame in Canada for this terrible stain on the country’s history

My late mother spent her childhood in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Chicago with her siblings. She never talked about it.

She eventually left the church when I was young. She never fully explained why.

My family history is another reason why Canada’s renewed residential school scandal, because of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near some of these schools, has hit me harder than most. It’s an abomination and the Catholic Church has much to answer for. These unmarked graves were found near some of their schools and others are being probed.

The new revelations have sparked the burning of 10 Catholic churches thus far. Nearly three-quarters of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations. The rest were managed by Presbyterians, Anglicans and the United Church of Canada.

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were “orphaned” and incarcerated in state-funded Christian boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. This gutted and terrorized First Nations for generations and the sheer scale of the sociological devastation has yet to be understood by outsiders.

By 2008, the Canadian government acted to right some of the wrongs. Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the policy and abuses, as did the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches. And since then, Ottawa has paid survivors some $3 billion in compensation.

A former Pope only expressed “sorrow” years ago, and offered no apology. But the church should practise what it preaches: confession and penance are sacraments. And the Vatican and its Canadian dioceses must abjectly apologize and, more importantly, be required by law to help defray the estimated $1 billion needed to find all the unmarked graves across the country and determine identities.

To date, church officials have been defensive. For instance, one Canadian cardinal “explained” to a newspaper that the Roman Catholic Church is divided into dioceses, most of which are struggling financially and, by inference, cannot be held liable. But morality cannot be franchised and churches own vast amounts of untaxed real estate and other assets. Then there’s the Vatican’s enormous wealth, which should be earmarked for reparations.

Instead, another cleric, Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, complained on YouTube that in his role he is getting “bombarded a lot,” and that in dealing with the media, he’s noticing “a lot of blame, a lot of accusations, a lot of exaggerations, a lot of false ideas.”

“And so I say in my heart,” he said. “You know something? There’s a persecution happening here. There’s a persecution happening here.”

Such insensitivity is appalling.

Untold numbers of children died of disease and other causes, and many never returned. And this scandal raises other questions: What abuses occurred in Catholic orphanages where untold thousands more non-Indigenous children were housed? How many unmarked graves are to be found near their sites?

The track record is abysmal. There were two other scandals unearthed over the years involving governments and this church, notably the so-called Duplessis Orphans cases in Quebec and the sexual abuses that occurred at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland.

But in sheer scale, the sins committed against Canada’s First Nations are massive and ongoing. They exhibit all the symptoms of those suffering from intergenerational trauma. In their case, generations were denied parental affection, and were subjected to corporal punishment, sexual abuses and cultural or psychological shaming.

Intergenerational trauma is a psychiatric disorder that never dissipates, without massive treatment, intervention and understanding. Permanent scars are passed along, and symptoms include depression, anxiety, the inability to show or give affection, hypervigilance, violence, the perpetuation of child abuse, suicide and substance abuse.

This is, by the way, also the history of African-Americans who were enslaved for hundreds of years until the U.S. Civil War, then were denied rights and respect for another century, until the Civil Rights Act. Many still exhibit trauma symptoms that have made their lives and struggles more difficult.

Guaranteeing the security and well-being of children in a society is a sacred trust. Both church and state were to blame in Canada for this terrible stain on the country’s history, and both share an obligation to find, identify and properly bury these victims and compensate their families. And only then can they expect forgiveness.