CCN photo/Deborah Gyapong

Apology accepted

  • June 11, 2015

Among the action calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on residential schools is an insistence that Pope Francis apologize in person to Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

It’s true the Canadian Church must repent its role in residential schools. But the Vatican apology the TRC seeks was already made and graciously accepted six years ago. A do-over is unnecessary.

Pope Benedict made that apology in 2009 when he shook hands with a delegation of native leaders under Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The Vatican meeting was convened by then Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, former president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and fervent crusader for aboriginal justice. Its explicit purpose was to let Benedict apologize for Church complicity in residential schools.

Revisionists now suggest  Benedict expressed regret and sorrow, but stopped short of a full apology. But that’s just false, as the record indicates. In a press conference that day, Fontaine said: “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 Vatican meeting came months after a residential-school apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Fontaine sought a Harper-like mea culpa from the Pope — and he got it. In Fontaine’s words: “We were looking for a similar apology from the Catholic Church, and I was a witness to that today.” Native leaders “heard what we came here for,” he said.

It’s clear Fontaine received the apology he had solicited and deserved to hear. To his credit, he accepted it generously. The day was an important step in reconciliation between the Church and Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

For the TRC to discount that apology might be due to a Vatican statement that used the term “regret” instead of “apology.” Also, the TRC relied on a CBC report which spoke only of the Pope’s regret. But Benedict’s apology was unequivocal and sincere, as Fontaine acknowledged. It’s also odd for the commission to insist on a papal apology in Canada when no similar call has gone out to the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding Anglican-run schools or Queen Elizabeth for the colonial prejudice that spawned them.

It’s up to Pope Francis, of course, to decide if he’ll build on Benedict’s apology. The TRC wants Francis to not only match Benedict’s 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland, which said he was “truly sorry” for the priestly abuse of children, but they’ve given Francis 12 months to apologize personally in Canada.

That seems unlikely to happen, although with Francis anything is possible. If he wants to take that extra step, there is no harm in doing so, just as it is perfectly fitting to let Benedict’s apology stand.

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