Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Papal Apology for Abuse of Aboriginal Children in Canadian Catholic Residential Schools

Canadian aboriginal children at a festival

(Photo Courtesy: www.flickr.com/photos/craigjenkins/)

Canadian aboriginal woman at a festival

(Photo Courtesy: www.flickr.com/photos/ocad123/)

Pope Benedict XVI on April 29, 2009, met with representatives of Canadian Catholic communities and aboriginal peoples in a special audience at the Vatican and expressed his sorrow for the physical and sexual abuse of students in government-funded Catholic residential (boarding) schools from 1840's to the 1970's. He also offered his prayerful solidarity to the aboriginal peoples as they move forward, reports Zenit news agency.

Among the persons present at the audience were a group of Canadian clergy and lay Catholics and Archbishop James Weisgerber (of Winnipeg, Manitoba), President of the Canadian Bishops' Conference, who accompanied a group of former aboriginal students and victims, including Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada.

A Vatican press release reported that the Pope, after listening to some stories and concerns of the First Nations representatives, acknowledged the "sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system and expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity."

Pope Benedict XVI also emphasized that "acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations peoples to continue to more forward with renewed hope."

Grand Chief Phil Fontaine, who is also an abuse victim, said in a post-papal audience press conference that group members "heard what we came for" and were "very happy" with the meeting and response of the Pope, reports Catholic News Service.

"We hoped to hear the Holy Father talk about the residential school experience, but also about abuses and hurts inflicted on so many and to acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church. We wanted to hear him say that he understands and that he is sorry and that he feels our suffering and we heard that very clearly."


The residential schools for the aboriginal students (1840's to 1990's) were founded through the Canadian government funding. A total of 130 residential schools were operated by the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Presbyterian Church, and United Church. About 75% of these schools were administered by the Catholic Church through its Religious Orders. About 150,000 aboriginal students passed through this school system.

The Canadian government wanted to uproot these students from their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant white, Christian culture. Under the penalty of imprisonment, the aborginal families were required to send their children -- aged 6 to 15 -- away to live and study in these schools. Students were forbidden to speak in their own mother languages. They also could not engage in their own cultural and spiritual practices. Many of them were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. In addition, these schools also had problems of overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of facilities.

Apology from Other Churches and Canadian Government

The Canadian Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church leaders had already apologized to the aboriginals for the abuse in their schools. The Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, made a formal apology in the parliament in June of 2008.

The Globe and Mail reports that the Catholic entities involved with the schools issued two written apologies in 1991. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) apologized for the physical and sexual abuse as well as for the very existence of the schools. The letter said the system was inspired by a "European superiority complex" that dismissed native spiritual practices as "pagan and superstitious."

The Canadian government, under an out-0f-court settlement with the former residential school students in 2006, is providing billions of dollars in compensation.

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