NEWS STORY: United Church of Canada apologizes for boarding school abuses

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

VANCOUVER, British Columbia _ The moderator of the United Church of Canada has issued the strongest apology yet of any Canadian church group for his denomination’s complicity in the”pain and suffering”caused by the now-defunct residential school system for native Indians.

Bill Phipps said Tuesday his denomination is”truly and most humbly sorry”for the thousands of young Indians who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused at residential schools, which were funded by the federal government and operated by churches.

Phipps said in an interview he doesn’t know of any Canadian denomination or government that has officially issued such a”bald”acknowledgment of blame for its role in running some of the 130 native Indian residential schools that dotted Canada until the last ones were disbanded in the 1970s.

The strong statement from the United Church _ it has issued two earlier statements _ comes in the midst of other recent revelations and reports on child sexual abuse within religious groups, including boarding schools for children of members of the Hare Krishna movement during the 1970s and into the mid-1980s, and, separately, the children of missionaries from the U.S.-based Christian and Missionary Alliance, Gospel Missionary Union and missionary organizations at a boarding school in Africa between 1950 and 1971.

The United Church, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination with 800,000 members, ran about one-fifth of the country’s residential schools, which it admits were created to force Indians to assimilate into European culture and religion. The majority of the schools were operated by the Oblate Brothers of the Roman Catholic Church.

More than 10 clergy and church officials from the United, Anglican and Catholic denominations have so far been convicted of molesting hundreds of native boys and girls who were required to eat, sleep, work and study at the schools.

The highest Catholic official in North America ever charged with a sex crime, former Prince George, B.C., Bishop Hubert O’Connor, served five months in jail after being convicted of molesting girls in 1996. But the conviction, which related to when he was principal of a B.C. residential school in the 1960s, were quashed on appeal in May of this year.

As a result of the clergy sex crimes, more than 1,400 native Indians have launched civil suits against the United, Anglican and Catholic churches.

Catholic officials, such as Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops vice-president Gerald Weisner, have expressed worry that the lawsuits could bankrupt churches.

Phipps, on the other hand, said it’s important to issue an apology at the same time the United Church is contesting a recent precedent-setting B.C. Supreme Court decision that concluded the churches and federal government are equally liable for compensating victims of residential schools.”The lawsuits have made the residential school system the lightning rod, or even a metaphor, for our overall relation to the First Nations people,”Phipps said in an interview.

While Phipps acknowledged many in the United Church are justifiably nervous that Tuesday’s apology will increase the financial liability of the 800,000-member United Church to lawsuits, the vast majority of the denomination’s 70-member executive decided this week it was worth the risk.

However, Willie Blackwater, one of 30 native Indians who is seeking damages after being sexually assaulted by dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint at a United Church-run residential school on Vancouver Island, said the United Church should also pay victims if it’s serious about apologizing.”They should advise the court that they are prepared to accept legal responsibility equally with Canada for the assaults we all suffered while at the school, and that they are now prepared to compensate us for those assaults,”Blackwater said.

Phipps said the United Church wanted to issue the apology at this time because questions of legal liability are”very complexâÂ?¦and subject to argument and debate and legal niceties.” The legal issues will be decided either by the courts, Phipps said, or through what he called”an alternative settlement process”over a long period of time.”And even if we resolve the court cases, that’s only the beginning,”Phipps said.”If Canadians don’t understand the huge fault line that lies at the heart of our society, as symbolized by the residential schools, then we’re really missing opportunities to move forward to healing as a nation.” Phipps, who has earned a reputation as a theological and political progressive, said he was terribly saddened by the death on Monday (Oct. 26) of Darryl Watts, one of the students of the Port Alberni school in the 1950s and ’60s who was suing the United Church and the government of Canada.

If Watts’ death is determined to be a suicide, as many suspect, he would be the second suicide among sexual-abuse victims at the Port Alberni school.

Phipps’ apology on Tuesday follows two much more general statements of regret to native Indians that the United Church released in 1986 and 1997.

Explaining the necessity for three different statements, Phipps said:”Repentance is a long road and its going to need to go on for generations.” DEA END TODD

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