Did Pope Francis deliver an effective apology for the Catholic Church or to the residential school survivors?


If an apology is focused on the needs of the perpetrator for forgiveness and not on what the victims need for closure and healing, is it really an apology?

One could argue that the pope, in focusing his apology on seeking forgiveness for the horrific “sins” of his “children” (priests, nuns and other christians), is not really addressing the stated needs of their victims. The wording of the apology avoids any direct reference to accountability of the Church itself. His sincerity is not in question nor his unequivocal condemnation of the actions of christians against residential school students as evil.

What is in question with the carefully worded apology is what it didn’t say or acknowledge.

What did the residential school survivors ask for individually and as expressed by Indigenous leadership?

Survivor asksComplianceComment
An apology delivered on Indigenous territory: First Nations, Métis and InuitYesAlberta (First Nations, Métis – West), Québec (First Nations – East) and Nunavut (Inuit – North)
An apology acknowledging the specific sins committed against them PartialDid not include sexual abuse
Acknowledgement of accountability of Catholic Church as an institutionNoOnly mentioned Church in context of her “children” (priests, nuns and other christians)
Atonement for those actions through deeds and reparationsPartialCall for a thorough investigation and ongoing work together for reconciliation
Return of Indigenous artifacts held in Vatican museumsNoNot addressed
Access to residential school records held in Catholic archives to help identify missing childrenNoNot addressed
Renouncing the Doctrine of DiscoveryNoNot addressed

Certainly, his penitential pilgrimage to Canada where he is travelling to three distinct Indigenous regions (Alberta, Québec and Nunavut) is a powerful and hugely symbolic act of reconciliation. His five days in Canada to address Indian Residential School survivors in person will contribute greatly to the personal healing of many who have been waiting a very long time for this day.

The pope did, indeed, apologize with empathy, compassion and conviction. But what has been omitted detracts from the moral certitude of the Christian act of penance that according to Catholic dogma requires:

  • Confession: An acknowledgement of sin. In this case, by the Catholic Church as an institution
  • Contrition: An expression of sorrow for the act of sin and the consequences on its victims
  • Satisfaction: Specific actions to atone for the sinful behaviour
  • Absolution: The forgiveness of sins by a priest

Yes, Pope Francis did acknowledge the sins of his “children” – those priests, nuns and other christians who were the direct agents of sin against residential school students. No. he did not apologize for the Catholic Church. Yes, Pope Francis did express sorrow for the actions of his “children” and the consequences of those actions on survivors. No, he did not speak of any direct acts of atonement. And finally, Absolution isn’t relevant in this context as the residential school survivors do not need or want absolution. Nor were they asking for absolution for those who inflicted incredible suffering on them.

What they were asking for was justice through acknowledgment, accountability and actions.

What the survivors wanted and were denied was for the Catholic Church, as the ultimate authority over its members, to stand up and take ownership for the wrongs committed against them. The Church already stands guilty for not dealing with the child abusers among its members and for refusing to hand over all the records from their archives that would help identify the names of the missing children in all those unmarked graves.

Now, the Catholic Church is also guilty of delivering a disingenuous confession and apology that fails to acknowledge the role of the greater sinner – the Catholic Church – for continuing to deny its role in the operations of the residential schools. The other Church Parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the Anglican Church, the United Church and the Presbyterian Church – all acknowledged their accountability and apologized as institutions.

Why can’t the Catholic Church?

The spirits of the children in all those unmarked graves – those already found and those waiting to be discovered – are crying.

See also: “Will Pope Francis’ penitential voyage deliver what Indigenous people need?

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