Pope Francis has apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools, a year after the Catholic Church said it wouldn’t do so.
The Pontiff, speaking in Italian, asked for God’s forgiveness for the deplorable conduct of members of the Catholic Church.
“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said, during a final meeting with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates at the Vatican.
“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops in asking your pardon.”
Francis also said he will come to Canada.
Each of the groups had told the Pope in meetings earlier this week that they hoped he would apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the institutions in Canada. A date has not been set for the trip, but delegates said it could be as soon as this summer.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools and more than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
The meeting and apology comes 11 months after initial findings of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School were discovered by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, sparking a national reckoning.
Since then, an estimated 2,000 confirmed or suspected unmarked graves have been discovered across Canada – in some instances discovered as reflections in the soil by ground penetrating tools. A number of searches remain underway.
Around 190 people, including delegates, family and supporters, gathered to share spiritual practices and hear the Pope’s words during the final address.
Elder Fred Kelly prayed for the children who went to residential schools and healing in the future. Marty Angotealuk and Lizzie Angotealuk sang “Our Father” in Inuktitut and Métis Emile Janvier prayed in Dene.
Some members had expressed their apprehension and anxiety prior to the final meeting with the Pope because they were unsure they’d get the apology they had worked so hard for.
Phil Fontaine, a former national chief with the Assembly of First Nations, has said it was the right time for an apology.
Fontaine said earlier this week that the pressure on the church is immense after the discovery of unmarked graves at former sites of residential schools across Canada.
“The eyes of the world were upon us here,” he said Thursday after First Nations delegates met with the Pope.
Other religious officials at various levels, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, have apologized or the church’s role in the residential school system.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report on residential schools called for the pope to come to Canada and apologize to survivors, with the hope of such a trip happening one year after the 2018 apology for abuse faced by Irish women and babies in the country’s forced adoption system in the 20th century.
Also this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Williams Lake First Nation, where he apologized to survivors and families of victims for the horror that took place at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.
“I am here mostly to listen, learn and to hear from elders and community members what the path forward looks like, not just for this community, but this country, in partnership and respect in reconciliation,” he said.
Earlier this year, that Nation announced the initial discovery of 93 “reflections” or possible remains of children at the school’s site, while an investigation into other areas of the property continue.
- with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press