Retired Canadian archbishop: ‘We will not regain our credibility’ if the church doesn’t confront Indigenous abuse

America [New York NY]

December 20, 2021

By Bill McCormick, S.J.

Pope Francis’ meeting with representatives of Canadian Indigenous communities at the Vatican, spurred after unmarked graves were discovered at residential schools earlier this year, has been delayed. America spoke via email with Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., archbishop emeritus of Ottawa-Cornwall and current apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Hearst–Moosonee—which includes a number of people belonging to First Nations—about the situation in Canada. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

At an ordination Mass in August 2021, you spoke movingly of the church’s response to the residential boarding schools revelations. Would you mind sharing with us what you said there?

Here are excerpts from that homily:

We Jesuits of the world are celebrating a special jubilee year in 2021, the 500th anniversary of a Spanish soldier named Ignacio de Loyola being gravely wounded by a cannonball in the siege of Pamplona—not so much that battle as by an inner struggle that followed….

I would like to suggest to you that the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada has become a “cannonball” experience for the church in Canada and all its members, including us Jesuits. This unparalleled moment is summoning everyone in our country to a profound conversion as regards our relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this land.

Like Loyola’s conversion, the process will take a long time and will probably include false steps, setbacks, new learnings—and deep interior conversion—that is to say, if we are to embark on God’s call being addressed to us in this moment. As we Jesuits of Canada and Haiti belong to the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, this will have repercussions too for our American brethren, whose legacy lies in the “Indian Boarding Schools.”

For U.S. Catholics still trying to make sense of this news, how would you describe the magnitude of these discoveries?

It’s on par with the shocking nature of the revelation of sexual abuse by clergy and the mishandling of the perpetrators by the episcopacy. Canada’s experience began with the revelation of the abuse at Mount Cashel in Newfoundland in the late 1980s. I recall the chill it placed in clergy as we began to wonder how we would interact with children and their parents, as well as with vulnerable persons. It’s a world-changing moment. We thought we had begun to establish patterns of collaboration with Indigenous peoples—including Catholics—but all that is now being reassessed.

Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver recently wrote that “the church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.” Do you agree?

Yes, I do, but in a nuanced way. The church thought it was doing good in helping Indigenous people to interact with the European ways of looking at society and wishing for integration of settlers and Native Canadians. But integration and assimilation are not far apart, and we became party to a vision that was not rooted in Gospel values and respect for each human being.

But directing a residential school with disciplinary issues day in and day out led to our being co-opted into a process that was contrary to Gospel values. According to documents in our files, the religious men and women were constantly pleading with government officials for better and more nutritious food, adequate clothing, heating, etc. A key issue took place in the early years, when a medical advisor to the federal government pleaded for health measures to treat the many cases of tuberculosis, but his pleadings lost out to what became a more brutal regime, which led to the deaths of many children.

The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called upon Pope Francis to apologize. Should the pope apologize? Will he?

The Commission called for the pope to come to Canada and apologize within a year. The bishops felt, since there was a delay in implementing this resolution, that a better approach would be for the dioceses to engage in accompanying the Indigenous peoples in their territories and to prepare for a welcome to the Holy Father that would not simply be a one-off moment but the culmination of a process.

That ideal has become an untenable position now, and the question is what the now-postponed meeting of Indigenous leaders—accompanied by several bishops—with the pope will achieve. Will his words and gestures then satisfy the wish for an “apology”? Would they feel they can so determine a modification of the Commission’s resolution such that he does not need to come to Canada? I can’t say. My sense is that nothing less than a visit will do now.

But we need to ask: Is the pope’s health sufficiently vigorous to sustain a long trip with a limited agenda? A visit to Saskatchewan, say, which is a province that has not benefited from a papal visit in the past, has a large Indigenous population and a body of bishops eager to organize and cover the costs of a visit. That is what I would propose, and I think a significant number (if not a majority) of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop’s members would favor this now.

The Canadian bishops’ conference announced in June that Pope Francis would host a series of meetings with representatives of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. What do you hope to come of those meetings? What do you think they need to hear from the pope?

I believe the event will meet the limited expectations and go beyond them. He will do what we are all challenged to do: to listen, with an openness to the experience of pain and suffering, to the intergenerational negative consequences of our country’s failed assimilation project. That listening will necessarily lead to some words and gestures.

The representatives will need to hear of the church’s sorrow, expressed by its world leader, and that will have to include the word “apology.” Pope Benedict came close to it without using that specific word in 2009, but these are new times.

Do you think the Catholic Church in Canada is being persecuted or treated unfairly by Canadian public figures or the press?

I believe many in the media and leadership roles in our country find the Catholic Church an easy target. There has been very little attempt to give an op-ed position by journalists who could inquire about, or depict how, the church is living out this experience of almost unmitigated blame and shame. Perhaps that will come with time. Right now, we’re all suffering; it’s a difficult time to be a bishop.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been vigorous in his criticism of the Canadian Catholic Church and Pope Francis. Why do you think that is?

It’s always difficult to know what motivates our prime minister. In a way, he’s articulating the first, visceral impressions that great evil has been wrought on Indigenous Canadians at the hands of the Catholic Church. I would be more sympathetic to his position if he would own that the government had (and still has) a major role in creating the conditions of disrespect visited upon Indigenous citizens.

You’ve been a bishop since 1995. How have you seen the Canadian church’s response to these issues develop over time?

From the beginning, I don’t think I understood the extent of the suffering of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the residential schools. In standing by the religious sisters and priests who served with great devotion and self-sacrifice, I probably overestimated the good that was achieved and underestimated the harm that was done in them. I was not privy, as I should have been, to the shadow side of that reality that others had lived.

I have always found that our bishops cared for the Indigenous people, but it was one interest among many others. What we are coming to see now is that unless we address this need for attentive listening and new learning, we will not regain our credibility in society or with the many Catholics who are becoming estranged from the church.

How do you think this scandal will affect and shape the Canadian church into the future?

You’re right to call it a “scandal,” as many people are falling away or stumbling over this issue. People are disaffiliating from the church, leaders are dropping out of serving on parish communities, and many are finding the one-two punch of the residential schools and Covid-19 too much to handle.

I’m hoping we will be inspired, as church leaders have been in previous crises, to find the approach that will win people back after our conversion. I think of Jesus’ prayer for Simon Peter at the Last Supper (Lk 22:31-32) that after our “turning back”—or conversion—we, with Peter’s successor, will be able to strengthen the brethren.

The Lord wants the renewal of his church. I believe the spirituality of our Indigenous Catholics will assist us, and I’m counting on them to help us find the right path.

Bill McCormick, S.J., is a contributing editor at America and a visiting assistant professor at Saint Louis University in the departments of political science and philosophy.