Pope Francis should apologise for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system, writes Charlie Angus.
Apologies matter. I was taught this from my earliest years in Catholic schools and from the pulpit. The power of the apology is so central to the notion of healing and reconciliation in the Catholic tradition that it is given sacramental form in the rites of confession and penance.
It was Jesuit priests who taught me that the acts of apology and forgiveness cannot simply be personal. They must be systemic. This is how we make a broken world whole. The Church has a vital role to play by being rooted in justice through solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.
And so I was shocked by the comments of Pope Francis — the first Jesuit Pope — that he is unwilling to make a public apology for the Church’s role in the horrors of the residential school system. The call for a formal apology from the Pope is one of the key calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report. And yet, following discussions with the Canadian bishops, Pope Francis has said that the Church is not ready to take this step.
All but one of the Christian denominations involved in the crimes of the residential schools have taken part in the process of reparations and reconciliation. Yet the Catholic Church, which played the largest role in this evil system, has been the most recalcitrant when it comes to repentance.
In 2015, the Catholic bishops used a legal loophole to walk away from their legal obligation to pay $25 million in compensation to support survivors of horrific physical and sexual abuse in Church-run schools. The various Catholic orders involved in this abuse have also proved to be unwilling partners for reconciliation when it comes to turning over documents and evidence relating to the crimes committed in these institutions. Traditionally, it is a country’s bishops — in Canada, assembled in the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops — who must undertake the process of inviting the Pope to apologize on behalf of the Church. They have decided against this.
I have enormous faith in Pope Francis’ vision of a church that is actively engaged in the work of justice and healing. There are numerous precedents, such as when the Church apologized for systemic child abuse in Ireland, Pope Francis’ apology to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the apology for the Church’s role in the stolen generation of Indigenous children in Australia. So why are Canadian bishops refusing to take this step in Canada?
In this coming week, my colleague Romeo Saganash will introduce a parliamentary motion calling on the Catholic bishops to recognize their obligation to begin the process for a formal papal apology.
Having Parliament publicly call on the bishops is not a step we take lightly. There is no legal lever to compel them to act. Some have pointed out that there is a longstanding tradition of the separation church and state in Canadian political life. That may be, but it was the deliberate blurring of church and state interests that allowed criminal actions in schools like St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., to be carried out for decades.
Parliament needs to make itself heard because there is a moral urgency to the issue of reconciliation. There is no moving forward as a nation until all the parties to the brutalities of the residential schools come forward in a spirit of contrition and awareness for the damage done.
One of my proudest moments as a parliamentarian and Canadian was hearing Prime Minister Stephen Harper make Canada’s official apology for the horrors of the residential school system. I talked to survivors in my region following that apology and one couple told me they wept for days because they never dreamed that anyone would stand up and take responsibility for the crimes committed against them at St. Anne’s.
Canada’s Catholic community has an enormous role to play in the work of reconciliation. The Church in Canada has a long and proud tradition of justice and service. It is time for the bishops to step forward and do what we were all taught to do in Catholic schools from a young age: to apologize, and to promise an appropriate penance to restore what has been broken. Apologies matter.
Charlie Angus is the NDP MP for Timmins—James Bay.