Pope Francis has expressed his pain over the discovery in Canada of the remains of 215 Indigenous children forced to attend a church-run boarding school, but did not offer the apology sought by survivors of the system that a commission of inquiry said amounted to “cultural genocide”.
In his customary Sunday noon remarks to the public, Pope Francis said he was “following with pain the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children”.
“I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatised by the shocking news,” he said.
More than 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend over 130 residential schools across Canada from the 1870s to the 1990s, in a campaign to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools and students were beaten for speaking their Indigenous languages, among other rights violations.
Ground-penetrating radar was used to confirm the remains of the children at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, late last month.
The school was Canada’s largest such facility, with 500 students attending at its enrollment peak, and was operated by the Catholic Church between 1890 and 1969. The government later took over until the school was closed in 1978.
Trudeau on Friday blasted the church for being “silent” and “not stepping up”, and called for a formal apology and for the church to make amends for its prominent role in the residential school system.
“We’re still seeing resistance from the church, possibly from the church in Canada,” said Trudeau, who in 2017 also made a formal request for a papal apology.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia – which discovered the remains at Kamloops residential school after decades of work – has said her nation wants a public apology from the Catholic Church.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran nearly half of Canada’s residential schools, has yet to release any records about the Kamloops school, she also said.
Among the many recommendations of a government-established Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 was a papal apology.
On Sunday, the Pope called for Canada’s political and religious leaders to work together to “shed light on this matter”, while also committing to a path of “reconciliation and healing”.
“These difficult moments represent a strong call to distance ourselves from the colonial model and from today’s ideological colonising and to walk side by side in dialogue, in mutual respect and in recognising rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada,” he said.
The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches have apologised for their roles in abuse at the schools, as has the Canadian government, which has offered compensation.
United Nations rights experts in a statement on Friday called on Canada and the Catholic Church to carry out swift and thorough investigations into the affair.
Criminal investigations should also be launched into all allegations of suspicious deaths and claims of torture and sexual violence against children at the schools, the experts also said.
Perpetrators and concealers who may still be alive should be prosecuted and sanctioned, the UN experts added, saying that it was “inconceivable” that Canada and the Vatican would leave such “heinous crimes” unaccounted for.