After a century and a half of widespread abuse, followed by decades of scrutiny and years of intense public pressure, Pope Francis finally delivered an apology for the treatment of Indigenous children at Canadian residential schools operated by the Catholic Church. The scripted apology came only after Indigenous leaders traveled to the Vatican to request it, and was wholly insufficient for many survivors and victims’ families.
At the heart of this nightmarish story is a marriage between state and church. In 1894, the Canadian government made school attendance mandatory for Indigenous children, and in 1920 they were forced to attend residential schools, funded by the government but operated by churches. These schools were specifically designed to strip students of their cultural heritage, to turn “savages” into “Christian ‘white men.’”
Physical, sexual and emotional abuse were rampant at these church-run schools. It was well known that students died or disappeared by the thousands due to the poor conditions and abuse, but public attention to this atrocity lagged far behind.
Survivors’ stories of these residential schools eventually created enough pressure on churches for them to apologize, which some did as early as the mid-1980s. But even while various Protestant churches and individual bishops apologized throughout the decades to follow, the Catholic Church itself refused to admit responsibility until the physical evidence became too overwhelming to deny. And even then, after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a report on the “cultural genocide” committed at these schools in 2015, the pope waited seven years before finally apologizing.
The Catholic Church’s failure to admit its own culpability is accompanied by an unwillingness to pay its share of reparations to survivors. The Canadian government has paid billions of dollars to Indigenous communities as part of a settlement with survivors, and Protestant churches paid about $9 million, while the Catholic church has reportedly only paid $1.2 million as of April, despite operating 70 percent of Canadian residential schools and agreeing to pay $25 million Canadian dollars to compensate survivors.
The process of finding and identifying additional victims is difficult, long and expensive — and ethically necessary. The Catholic Church has not come close to paying its fair share for the deeds it was responsible for. In addition, the Vatican has reportedly failed to return First Nations and Indigenous people’s artifacts, or to release school records related to the residential school atrocities.
Giving a weak apology was quite literally the least the pope could have done, and it’s decades too late. This is yet another data point in the Catholic Church’s long history of hiding and denying its own crimes until it gets backed into a corner, as well as a harrowing reminder of the danger inherent in mixing religion and government.