(RNS) — Canada’s 90 Roman Catholic bishops have “unequivocally” apologized for that church’s role in the Indian Residential School system that about 150,000 of the country’s Indigenous people were forced to attend, where they often suffered emotional, psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
“We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual,” read a statement released after the Sept. 24 annual plenary meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We also sorrowfully acknowledge the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples that continue to this day.”
It added, “We acknowledge the suffering experienced in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.”
“Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples,” the bishops said.
In addition to apologizing, the bishops confirmed they will continue to work with representatives from Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples to secure a papal visit and formal apology from the pope.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said that, while she welcomed the apology, she will wait to see if the bishops’ promises will be kept.
“The words of the apology speak to a commitment by the church to the healing path forward with First Nations and Indigenous peoples,” Archibald said in a statement. “Only time will tell if concrete actions will follow the words of contrition by the bishops.”
Archbishop William McGrattan of Calgary, vice president of the CCCB, acknowledged there is still a way to go to show Indigenous people the apology is sincere and heartfelt.
“All we can do is offer it in humility and hope it is accepted and brings peace and healing,” he said. Any future reconciliation efforts will be done together with Indigenous people, he said, “not us telling them or directing them but listening to them.”
Canada’s government-sponsored and religiously run Indian Residential School system was established in the 19th century to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. The schools, which operated into the 1970s, were run mainly by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Churches.
In May, the unmarked graves of 215 students at the schools were found in British Columbia, prompting a re-examination of the churches’ roles.
The United Church of Canada apologized for its role in the schools in 1986, and the Anglican Church of Canada apologized in 1993.
While the apology came from the bishops, McGrattan hopes Canadian Catholics will “see this as an opportunity to also pursue reconciliation and commit themselves to tangible ways of pursuing it.”
McGrattan said the decision was a Kairos moment — or “the right time” — in the life of that church.
“I believe God intervened in us coming together, with such a strong, committed message of this apology,” he said, adding that it was “an opportunity for us to speak with one voice, a moment not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but for all Canadians.”
The bishops said they plan to urge Catholics to educate themselves about the role the church played in the schools and also to donate to a new $30 million Canadian dollars ($23.7 million U.S.) healing and reconciliation fund.
“It’s going to be a national effort with a national goal, but the distribution is to be done locally with local accountability with Indigenous people,” McGrattan said, noting this campaign is intended to make up for the failed effort by the church in 2008-13 to raise money for a healing fund.
That campaign, with a target of C$25 million ($19.7 million), raised less than C$4 million ($3.1 million).
“I hope it (this new fund) will resonate with the Catholic faithful,” he added.
Of the proposed papal visit, he said: “We heard loud and clear this is important to Indigenous people, and we want to convey to them we see the importance of this, too.”