Pope Francis at a Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

Cathy Majtenyi: Time to admit sins of our past

  • June 12, 2021

One of the greatest gifts a human being can give is the gift of acknowledgement: a nod, a smile, saying the person’s name out loud.

In British Columbia, there are 215 tiny, unidentified bodies whose names are unable to be spoken out loud. In their brief lifetime, these innocents may never have received a nod or a smile after being ripped away from their families and communities.

The world is horrified by the discovery at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, operated by the Catholic Church from 1893 to 1969. What’s even more devastating is that there are at least 4,000 more children, maybe as many as 6,000, across Canada who met a similar fate through their forced assimilation in settler society via the residential school system, more than 60 per cent of which was operated by the Catholic Church.

For more than a century some 150,000 Indigenous children endured an education and way of life that explicitly stamped out their God-given identity. “Where are the children buried?” and the six-volume Truth and Reconciliation Commission report are among investigations detailing the horrific sexual, physical and mental abuses suffered.

It’s time the Canadian Church takes responsibility for the role it played in this cultural and spiritual destruction, the trauma of which is still being felt today. This is far more than a “sad affair” and an “upsetting discovery” as Pope Francis described in his June 6 address.

A papal mea culpa — as called for in the Truth and Reconciliation’s Calls to Action — is a powerful way to do this.

When Francis became Pope in 2013, many were heartened by his support for the rights of those marginalized by self-serving, repressive political and economic systems. Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti is particularly vocal on justice for the poor and marginalized. In sections 244 and 249, he writes: “When conflicts are not resolved but kept hidden or buried in the past, silence can lead to complicity in grave misdeeds and sins,” and, “Nowadays, it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no! We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory.”

Suffering wrought by the residential school system was the result of a violent, centralized, consciously co-ordinated practice to destroy the identity of Canada’s original inhabitants, to achieve the very political and economic goals Pope Francis denounces.

To his credit, in 2009 Pope Benedict met privately with a delegation that included then-leader of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, Indigenous elders and residential school survivors. A Vatican statement issued after the meeting said: “Given the suffering that some Indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”

In contrast, the following year Pope Benedict issued a formal, public apology to Irish victims of sexual abuse for the commission of “sinful and criminal acts” and telling clergy: “You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals.”

Bishops in some dioceses have apologized, with funding and reconciliation programs taking place at local levels. While these are welcomed and laudable, they are a patchwork of efforts. For consistency, a central voice must acknowledge the harm done by the Catholic system as a whole, leaving it up to local dioceses to work out the details of reconciliation.

Indigenous leaders and communities have long called for the Church to admit the sins of the past as a first step to achieving authentic reconciliation. Using the Irish apology as a model, let the Bishop of Rome take up this call.

(Majtenyi is a public relation officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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