THE Catholic Church in Australia has apologised for its part in an assimilation policy aimed at breaking the spiritual and cultural identity of Aborigines, by removing tens of thousands of black children from their parents.
"We sincerely regret that some of the church's child welfare services ... assisted governments implement assimilationist policies and practices," the Catholic bishops of Australia said in a statement yesterday.
"The stolen generation of Australians is indeed the forgotten generation," the bishops said.
"The abhorrent practice of removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families will remain forever a blight on our nation."
The statement is the first formal apology by the Catholic Church for taking part in a government separation policy and was delivered on Thursday to a national inquiry into the forced removal of mixed race Aborigines.
Tens of thousands of Aborigines, called the "Stolen Generation were forcibly separated from their families under the policy from the mid 1800s until the mid 1960s.
Aborigines have called the separation policy genocide because it aimed to assimilate Aborigines into Australia's then predominantly Anglo Saxon society.
Under the policy, government authorities physically removed Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in government or religious institutions.
Some elderly Aborigines have told the inquiry that police on horseback simply rode up to their outback communities, snatched them and rode off again.
Some were never reunited with their families and only discovered, they were Aboriginal in their old age. Many blame their present psychological problems, which have resulted in alcoholism and drug addiction, on the separation and sexual and physical abuse they suffered in institutions.
Six mixed race Aborigines in 1995 lodged a High Court writ for unspecified compensation against the Australian government over its former separation policy.
The Catholic Church said that in the early 1800s its missions merely separated whole Aboriginal communities from the "evils" of white Australia, but over time a belief in white superiority led to the decision to separate children.
"There was an underlying view that conversion to Christianity required the weakening of the spiritual influence of Aboriginal elders and culture on the younger generation," the bishops said.
"This led almost inevitably to accepting the idea that the physical separation of Aboriginal children from those families who were not in reserves or missions was necessary for their ultimate spiritual and material well being," they said.
The bishops said belief in the "superiority of white culture" was even accepted by some Aborigines who believed their children should be sent away.
"In many ways this is the ultimate tragedy and injustice of race relations in this country... namely that Aboriginal people were perceived to be inferior to other Australians," they said.
The national inquiry into the "Stolen Generation" will deliver a report to the Australian government in December.
There are about 300,000 Aborigines in Australia out of a population of 18 million. Historians estimate there were about two million Aborigines at the time of white settlement in 1788.