Vatican follows familiar playbook on Canadian children’s home scandal

Pope’s apology to indigenous communities stopped short of accepting institutional responsibility

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday for a six-day “penitential pilgrimage”, the first papal visit to the country in two decades. He came to deliver a long-awaited apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the running of residential schools in Canada. At least 150,000 indigenous children were separated (often forcibly) from their families and abused, physically, emotionally and sexually, at these schools. Many thousands never returned home. The pope earlier this year met a group of indigenous leaders from the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities of Canada at the Vatican, and apologised for the “deplorable conduct” of “members of the Catholic Church”. He stopped short, however, of accepting responsibility on behalf of the Catholic Church as an institution.

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school, the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia last year looms large in the background to this papal visit. Since this discovery, searches have revealed more than 1,000 unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools, the majority of the bodies believed to be those of children.

Delivering his speech on Monday in Maskwacis, Alberta, flanked by the chiefs of the four nations of Maskwacis, the pope offered his apology. He asked for forgiveness “for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools”. He acknowledged the disastrous policies of the residential school system and asked for forgiveness for the “evil” committed against the indigenous peoples.

In Ireland we are no strangers to the separation of mothers from their children, and the abuse of women and children in church-run institutions throughout the 20th century. The discovery of the remains of more than 800 children and babies in an unmarked mass grave at the former Tuam mother and baby home, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, has forced us to grapple with questions of how to seek justice for those who were lost and those who have survived.


The ‘few bad apples’ theme of the papal apologies — or even, many bad apples — fails to address how the same series of horrific events took place in religious-run institutions in Ireland and Canada

In his 2018 visit to Ireland Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the abuses perpetrated by members of the church. He acknowledged that the Catholic Church did not show compassion to survivors, and that members of the church hierarchy attempted to keep the abuse quiet. The consistent reference to “members” of the Catholic Church who perpetrated these crimes avoids the acceptance of responsibility by the church as an institution; an institution that facilitated child abuse on a large scale and actively contributed to the attempted erasure of indigenous peoples’ culture, traditions and languages.

The “few bad apples” theme of the papal apologies — or even, many bad apples — fails to address how the same series of horrific events took place in religious-run institutions in Ireland and Canada: family separation, systemic child abuse and the dumping of children’s and babies’ bodies in unmarked graves. The survivors deserve a fulsome apology, without reservation, and an acknowledgment of institutional responsibility on behalf of the church. They also deserve restitution. In Canada the Catholic Church undertook to pay $25 million compensation to survivors under the Indian Residential School Survivor Agreement. Only a fraction of this sum has been paid.

The pope concluded his speech in Alberta by noting that this most recent apology is only the starting point, and that an investigation will take place into the facts of what took place and a process will be undertaken “to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.” It remains to be seen what form this investigation will take and by whom it will be conducted.

The pope received a warm welcome from indigenous communities. In his welcome address Chief Wilton Littlechild (also a residential school survivor) of the Ermineskin Cree Nation expressed gratitude for the great personal effort made by the pontiff in travelling to Canada. The fact that the pope, who has a range of health ailments, made the journey to ask for forgiveness in person in Canada, speaks to his sincerity in acknowledging the great pain inflicted upon indigenous peoples over the years.

The church’s track record in Ireland and elsewhere, however, will leave many cynical about the prospects of a full acknowledgment of institutional responsibility arising from the promised investigation, or the provision of full and proper reparations for the past. While the pope in his speech made reference to the “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” suffered at the residential schools, he notably omitted to mention the sexual abuse that took place. For the church as an institution, it seems, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Seána Glennon is a lawyer and chief outreach officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies. She is based in Toronto