July 25, 2022
By Erin Cunningham
Pope Francis on Monday apologized to Canada’s Indigenous community for the role the Catholic Church played in overseeing decades of abuse at some of the nation’s residential schools. The schools, which were run by both churches and Canada’s federal government, removed about 150,000 Indigenous children from their families — and used hunger, sexual violence and religious indoctrination to forcibly assimilate the students.
But it wasn’t the first time Francis — or even his predecessors — has asked forgiveness for the church’s crimes and transgressions. In fact, his remarks were the latest in a string of papal apologies in recent years.
Not all of the pleas have fully implicated the church, instead blaming individuals for wrongdoing or misconduct. Here are some of the apologies the various heads of the Catholic Church have given in recent years.
Francis is in Canada this week on the first papal visit since 2002. On Monday, clad in a headdress presented to him by Indigenous leaders, he described Canada’s residential school system as “catastrophic” and asked forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians.”
“I am deeply sorry — sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples,” Francis, who is from Argentina, said in his native Spanish.
Francis is the first Latin American pope and has offered several apologies since becoming the head of the Catholic Church in 2013, most notably for sexual abuse. In a letter to Chilean bishops in 2018, he admitted to “serious errors” in handling a sex abuse scandal. Later that year, he penned a lengthy letter to Catholics worldwide in which he expressed deep regret for the church’s role in the abuse of minors and the subsequent coverup, saying: “We showed no care for the little ones. We abandoned them.”
In 2015, on a trip to Bolivia, Francis apologized for the “many grave sins … committed against the native people of America in the name of God.”
“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said, as the New York Times reported.
Pope Benedict XVI
Benedict XVI served as pope from 2005 to 2013, when he resigned, citing health reasons. During his pontificate, the church’s sexual abuse crisis — and his alleged involvement in helping sweep it under the rug — drew an extraordinary amount of media attention, much of which focused on Benedict himself, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2010, as sex abuse scandals swept the dioceses of Europe, Benedict XVI wrote a letter to the Catholics of Ireland apologizing for decades of “systemic” abuse against children. He criticized church authorities in Ireland but did not discipline any leaders.
This year, the former pope expressed “profound shame” after a German investigation commissioned by the church accused him of wrongdoing in his handling of sexual abuse cases during his time running the Archdiocese of Munich between 1977 and 1982.
“I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” Benedict said. “I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II’s papacy lasted 27 years, from 1978 to his death in 2005. The first email he ever sent, in November 2001, was an apology for “a string of injustices, including sexual abuse, committed by Roman Catholic clergy in the Pacific nations,” the BBC reported.
Before that, John Paul II offered his atonement for a number of the church’s sins. In the 1980s and 1990s, while visiting countries in Africa, he “consistently apologized for the church’s role in the slave trade,” the Associated Press reported.
He also wrote a sweeping apology to women, who “have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude,” he said, blaming “cultural conditioning” and some “members of the Church.”
The church also formally apologized during his papacy for failing to take more decisive action during World War II to stop the extermination of more than 6 million Jews, The Washington Post reported.
Chico Harlan and Amanda Coletta in Maskwacis, Alberta, contributed to this report.
Erin Cunningham is an editor on the Foreign desk, overseeing The Washington Post’s international news coverage during the evening hours in Washington. She joined The Post in 2014 as a correspondent in Cairo and has reported on conflict and political turmoil across the Middle East and Afghanistan. Twitter