Pope Francis to Atone for Catholic Abuse of Indigenous Children in Canada

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

July 25, 2022

By Francis X. Rocca

Pontiff to visit site of former school where indigenous children were assimilated to white culture

Pope Francis will visit the site of a former residential school for indigenous Canadian children on Monday morning, seeking to atone for the Catholic Church’s part in what a government-funded report has described as a system of cultural genocide.

The pope’s visit to Maskwacis, 60 miles from Edmonton, will be his first public appearance since his arrival in Canada on Sunday. His nearly weeklong visit to the country, which ends Friday, will be dedicated to asking forgiveness and seeking to reconcile his church with Canada’s indigenous people.

Pope Francis has made public apologies before, including for the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestants and its failure to protect minors from sexual abuse by priests. But he has never framed an entire trip around an apology until his visit to Canada, which he has described as a penitential pilgrimage.

That choice could make his actions this week more effective. On Sunday, an image of the 85-year-old pontiff in a wheelchair kissing the hand of a former residential school student struck a note of humility. But the pope’s approach also raises the stakes of disappointment if skeptics among indigenous leaders and elders conclude that his words are too qualified or lacking in specific remedies for historical injustice.

In 2018, the pope’s speech on the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Ireland was widely panned for not attributing responsibility to the Vatican or offering concrete steps to combat abuse.

The Catholic Church ran a large number of Canada’s residential schools, where over the course of more than a century more than 150,000 indigenous children were enrolled—often by force—in an effort to assimilate them to white Canadian culture. Many of the children were sexually or physically abused, according to a 2015 report by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission funded by the Canadian government.

Pope Francis apologized to indigenous leaders in Rome last April, voicing his “indignation and shame” at the “deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church” involved in the schools. “I ask God’s forgiveness and I would like to tell you, with all my heart: I am very sorry,” he said.

On Monday, in a speech to indigenous leaders at Maskwacis, the pope is expected to apologize again, the first of several planned apologies during his stay in Canada. The site includes a cemetery, which the pope will visit for a moment of silent prayer.

Last May, the discovery of evidence of 200 suspected graves at another former residential school in British Columbia set off a passionate national discussion of the schools. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a collective apology last September for “grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community.” The following month, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would travel to Canada.

Indigenous leaders and elders have said they want the visiting pope to not merely repeat his apology for the role of Catholics in the schools but to assign blame to the church as an institution. It is far from clear that Pope Francis is ready to do that. Speaking earlier this month in Rome, he explained the reason for what he called his “penitential pilgrimage” to the country: “Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious institutes, have contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that, in the past, have severely harmed native communities in various ways.”

Pope Francis will meet with indigenous Canadians again on Monday afternoon, in a setting that represents a more harmonious side of the Catholic Church’s relationship with their cultures.

Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples is a parish designated especially for indigenous Catholics where worship includes elements of local traditions. In 2020, the church was devastated by a fire caused by smoldering sage and ashes from an indigenous smudging ceremony.

The rebuilt church, consecrated earlier this month by Edmonton’s Archbishop Richard Smith, features elements that reflect indigenous culture, including teepee poles over the altar.

During his visit to the church, Pope Francis will bless a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), the first indigenous North American to be canonized as a saint.