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More than 1,200 unmarked graves were discovered earlier this year at several former residential-school sites.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In their most comprehensive statement of contrition to date, the Catholic Bishops of Canada apologized on Friday for the trauma and suffering caused by the church’s involvement in the residential-school system, and vowed to launch fundraising campaigns across the country to support initiatives identified by Indigenous communities.

The written statement restates plans for Pope Francis to meet with a delegation of Indigenous survivors in Rome in December. Canadian Indigenous leaders have called for the Pope to issue an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church on Canadian soil.

The bishops pledged to work with the Holy See and Indigenous partners “on the possibility of a pastoral visit by the Pope to Canada as part of this healing journey.”

More than 1,200 unmarked graves were discovered earlier this year at several former residential-school sites. The discoveries touched off a wave of rallies across the country which called for financial reparations and apologies from both the church and the Pope.

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The statement of apology notes that many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in the residential-schools system and that it led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality.

“We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and sexual. 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,” the statement says.

“Along with those Catholic entities which were directly involved in the operation of the schools and which have already offered their own heartfelt apologies, we, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally.”

The statement was made at the end of the annual plenary assembly for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), a national co-ordinating body for the leaders of the Catholic Church in Canada. The assembly, which was held virtually, saw a gathering of about 90 bishops.

A new president for the CCCB was also announced at the assembly. Raymond Poisson, bishop of the Mont-Laurier and Saint-Jérôme dioceses in Quebec, will lead the organization. He replaces Archbishop Richard Gagnon, who led the conference as part of a two-year term.

Bishop Poisson was formerly the vice-president of the CCCB; the conference’s new vice-president is William McGrattan, bishop of Calgary.

This is not the first time that Canada’s Catholic bishops have collectively addressed the church’s role in residential schools.

In a 1991 statement after a meeting that “identified and acknowledged the positive and negative aspects of the schools,” the bishops said they were “sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced.” Other statements on residential schools have since been issued by individual Catholic leaders.

The Friday apology also promised to undertake a fundraising campaign “in each region of the country to support initiatives discerned locally with Indigenous partners.”

The Catholic Church was one of the religious organizations party to the residential-schools settlement agreement, a complex legal arrangement between Indigenous communities, the federal government and religious organizations that set aside restitution for residential-school survivors.

Under that agreement, the Catholic Church agreed to pay $29-million in cash, offer $25-million in church in-kind services and raise $25-million in a national fundraising campaign. That campaign fell short, however, raising just $3.7-million, and the church was eventually legally released from its settlement terms in a 2015 court case in Saskatchewan.

Since then, Indigenous leaders have repeatedly called on the church to voluntarily raise the outstanding funds. In 2016, a lawyer for the church said another round of fundraising was unlikely, and that many churches were near bankruptcy.

In August, a Globe and Mail investigation found that the church had $4.1-billion in net assets in 2019, and that it had received $886-million in donations, making it the largest charitable organization in the country.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, said that while the bishops’ statement had “positive aspects,” it lacked “key details” on some of the actions sought by survivors.

For instance, the statement did not adequately address a long-standing request from Indigenous communities for residential-school records held by Catholic organizations, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. While some records have been turned over to communities and organizations such as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, many files have still not been produced by the church.

She also said the statement did not address a significant continuing request from Indigenous communities for financial reparations.

“The statement is silent on the crucial point of the outstanding financial commitment the Catholic entities from the residential-schools settlement agreement bear to this date,” she said. “The moral obligation to do better than they did is acknowledged by some, but the remedy has not come forward.”

With reports from Bill Curry.

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