Thousands died in the schools, and many were victims of physical and sexual abuse. Some priests and nuns at the Catholic schools were involved in the most depraved abuses, including at an Ontario school where students were shocked on a homemade electric chair.
Since the release of the letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops saying the pope would not apologize now, Canada’s bishops have offered little clarity about why. Several Catholic lay people in Canada, including some who have worked within the church, say they believe the pontiff is following the advice of the Canadian bishops, who generally oppose the idea.
Some bishops in western Canada and the north — where most of the schools were — do support an apology. When the letter was released, Bishop Mark Hagemoen in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, noted the disappointment of the Indigenous community in a statement, adding, “I too regret that Pope Francis is not coming at this time.” The presumption is that an apology would be made during a visit.
Other bishops, in east Canada, say they believe that the church has already apologized and that in any event the pope’s actions shouldn’t be dictated by a government commission. They also are concerned about the cost of any papal visit because local dioceses would bear the expenses.
In recent years, papal infallibility, a concept officially codified by Pius IX nearly 150 years ago, seems to have been supplanted by papal apology.
Seven years before the death of John Paul II, in 2005, an Italian journalist, Luigi Accattoli, counted the pope as making at least 94 apologies. And that was before some of his big ones, like his “Day of Pardon” apology for the church’s sins against Jews, heretics, Gypsies, native peoples and women.
Pope Benedict XVI continued the trend, though the theologian argued that apologies were for the actions of individual Christians. His milestone apology went to clerical sexual abuse victims in Ireland.
Francis also has said sorry time and again — but never more forcefully and poignantly than he did this month in a letter to Chilean bishops that came after his own missteps on the sexual abuse issue that threatened to stain his papacy.
He first dismissed as “slander” accusations that a Chilean bishop had covered up abuse. The resulting outrage, the harshest he had faced in his papacy, led him to send his top investigator to Chile. The result was a remarkable apology.
“I recognize and I want you to communicate this accurately, that I have made serious errors of judgment and perception of the situation, especially due to lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote.
So now would seem a particularly good time to ask for an apology. And if Canada’s bishops supported it, it is hard to see that the pope would refuse because a hallmark of the Francis papacy is to decentralize authority to the bishops conferences around the world.
Joe Gunn, who spent a decade at the bishops’ conference in Canada helping to develop policies related to Indigenous people, said bishops in Ontario and Quebec whose diocese had little or no direct involvement in the notorious schools, likely blocked efforts to recommend a visit and an apology.
Financial concerns most likely factored in, if a papal visit were part of the apology, Mr. Gunn and others suggested. A 2002 visit to Canada by Pope John Paul II left the Canadian bishops’ conference 36 million Canadian dollars in debt. The shortfall was covered by the country’s dioceses, financially straining some.
But Mr. Gunn, who is now the executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based public policy group, said the bishops’ stance more likely reflected a fractured church in Canada, as well as a general lack of a national strategy on reconciliation.
“Each diocese and institute is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions,” the bishops wrote in a recent statement. “The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the residential schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
That assertion, though, has been widely rejected.
“It’s convenient when you have an issue like this to not have the responsibility shared nationally,” Mr. Gunn said. “Contrast that with when the bishops speak about other issues like abortion. They don’t use the same kind of language.”
As the public backlash in Canada has grown over the lack of an apology, the bishops have also adopted the position that there have, in fact, already been papal apologies for residential schools.
In particular, they cite a private meeting in 2009 between Pope Benedict and Indigenous leaders, including Phil Fontaine, then the leader of the Assembly of First Nations, the country’s largest aboriginal group. At that time, the pope expressed his “sorrow” about the schools.
Few people other than the bishops, however, equate the pope’s words at that meeting with an apology — including Mr. Fontaine.
“It was right for the moment,” Mr. Fontaine said this past week about Pope Benedict’s expression of sorrow. “But there’s a lot we didn’t know about in 2009: We didn’t know the number of deaths, the numbers of those abused. So much has been exposed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s really so different now.”
Father Tom Rosica, the chief executive of Salt and Light Media, a Catholic television service based in Toronto, is among those in the church bristling at the idea of Canada’s Parliament, or any government, issuing demands of the pope.
“Governments never dictate to the pope what the pope should say and when he should say it,” said Father Rosica, who has worked in the Vatican’s media office.
But Mr. Angus, the lawmaker who introduced the motion, which is likely to be debated late this week, said that because the church ran the schools on behalf of the government using government money, the measure does not inappropriately cross any lines between politics and religion.
While Canada has no constitutional separation between church and state, it is unusual for Parliament in modern times to make a request of any church.
During a recent news conference, Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, Manitoba, endorsed the pope’s decision not to offer an apology now.
But Archbishop Gagnon and Bishop Lionel Gendron, the president of the bishops’ conference, repeatedly avoided answering direct questions about advice they had given the pope, and they did not offer much guidance about when they thought a visit and apology might be appropriate.
“If you place Pope Francis among Indigenous people and he hears these horrible stories, what do you think he’s going to say?” Archbishop Gagnon told reporters.
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