VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday made a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools and said he hoped to visit Canada in late July to deliver the apology in person to survivors of the church’s misguided missionary zeal.
Francis begged forgiveness during an audience with dozens of members of the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities who came to Rome seeking a papal apology and a commitment from the Catholic Church to repair the damage. The first pope from the Americas said he hoped to visit Canada around the Feast of St. Anna, which falls on July 26.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.
After hearing their stories all week, Francis told the Indigenous groups that the colonial project ripped children from their families, cutting off their roots, traditions and culture and provoking inter-generational trauma that is still being felt today. He said it was a “counter-witness” to the same Gospel that the residential school system purported to uphold.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Francis said. “And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”
The trip to Rome by the Indigenous leaders, elders and survivors was years in the making but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the residential schools in Canada. The three groups met separately with Francis over several hours this week, telling him their stories, culminating with Friday’s audience.
The president of the Metis National Council, Cassidy Caron, said the Metis elder sitting next her burst into tears upon hearing what she said was a long-overdue apology.
“The pope’s words today were historic, to be sure. They were necessary, and I appreciate them deeply,” Caron told reporters in St. Peter’s Square. “And I now look forward to the pope’s visit to Canada, where he can offer those sincere words of apology directly to our survivors and their families, whose acceptance and healing ultimately matters most.”
First Nations’ Chief Gerald Antoine echoed the sentiment, saying Francis recognized the cultural “genocide” that had been inflicted on Indigenous peoples.
“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for. And certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” he said. “It’s a historical first step, however, only a first step.”
He and other delegates said there was far more for the church to do on the path of reconciliation, but that for now Indigenous leaders insisted on being involved in organizing the papal visit to make sure Francis stops in places that hold spiritual importance to their people.