Francis applauded as he ‘begs for forgiveness’ for evil committed in schools
Pope Francis expressed his “sorrow, indignation and shame” as he apologised for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of more than 150,000 indigenous Canadian children who were taken from their families and packed off to hellish boarding schools.
The pontiff offered an apology to around 2,000 survivors gathered at the site of one of the former residential schools, where children were starved, beaten and sexually abused in a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide”.
The Pope went even further, apologising for Christian support of the overall “colonising mentality” of the times and calling for a “serious investigation” of the schools to assist survivors and descendants in healing.
Among those gathered in the town of Maskwacis in Alberta were tribal chiefs, some of them in beaded shirts and feathered headdresses, others beating traditional drums.
Pope Francis said he felt “a deep sense of pain and remorse” having heard of the “devastating experiences” suffered by children at the schools, a decades-long system which he described as a “deplorable evil” and “catastrophic” for indigenous people.
“I am deeply sorry,” he said, drawing applause from the survivors seated in front of the stage on which he sat. “I humbly beg forgiveness... for the evil committed by so many Christians.”
The horrific treatment of generations of children from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities is a dark stain on the conscience of the Catholic Church which ran around 60pc of the residential schools in Canada.
The intention was to assimilate indigenous children into Christian society but the effects were horrific.
“The policies of assimilation were devastating for the peoples of these lands,” the Pope said.
Survivors of the schools have told of being beaten, raped and forced to eat food so rancid it made them vomit. In some cases, they were then made to eat the vomit, they recounted.
Around 4,000 children died from disease, neglect and other causes, with many buried in mass graves which have come to light in recent years. The Pope prayed at a cemetery near the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, which is now largely demolished.
He then addressed survivors of the school, their relatives and indigenous elders.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, who attended the school as a child, told the Pope of “the abuse so many of us have suffered at this and other residential schools”.
He said that as a former commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he had heard nearly 7,000 testimonies from former students.
“Our languages were suppressed, our culture taken from us, and our spirituality denigrated,” the chief said. Families were “torn apart”.
The Pope offered an initial apology in April when survivors and indigenous leaders met him at the Vatican. But the delegates told him they wanted him to also apologise on Canadian soil, hence the six-day trip.
Traditional tepees were set up by mental health professionals at the site to offer counselling to anyone experiencing trauma.
“Our people have been through a lot. Our people have been traumatised. Some of them didn’t make it home. Now I hope the world will see why our people are so hurt,” said one survivor of the school system, Chief Greg Desjarlais.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the government-funded schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s.
Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, last year apologised for “the incredibly harmful” school system. He attended the event in Alberta.
The Catholic Church in Canada says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50mn (€38m) in cash and contributions to traumatised individuals and communities. The Canadian government has paid reparations amounting to billions of dollars.
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