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Pope Francis, right, leads a Holy Mass on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican City. After discoveries of children's bodies buried at a former Kamloops residential school site, the Pope has faced calls to apologize for the Church's role in running the schools.

GIUSEPPE LAMI/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the Catholic community are calling on their leadership to ask Pope Francis to make a formal apology about the church’s role in running residential schools, saying in petitions and open letters that the responses have been inadequate.

One petition, signed by more than 3,000 Catholics including priests, nuns, scholars and lay people, is asking the bishops of Canada to request a papal apology. In addition, it calls on the church to meet a previous financial obligation to contribute significant funding toward Indigenous healing and reconciliation programs.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has yet to promise any concrete actions, after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced more than a week ago that the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

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The Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves: What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far

The discovery has sparked calls for additional investigations of residential-school sites across the country, where more than 4,000 deaths of Indigenous children have been recorded and thousands more are estimated to have died.

“We are a group of lay people and clergy who are deeply disappointed with our official church – hurt, ashamed and saddened at the discovery of the graves of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops,” the petition says.

“We are hurt by the church we love and belong to because of its lack of action and apparent willingness to minimize and not fully assume responsibility for its and our role in one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.”

Multiple change.org petitions have been started since the Kamloops announcement, related to the Catholic Church, asking for apologies, accountability and funding to pay for investigations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with Indigenous leaders and survivors say they have been disappointed with responses from the church.

Pope Francis expresses sorrow over unmarked graves at residential school but does not answer calls for apology

The Globe and Mail sent a list of questions to the CCCB, last week and again on Monday, about whether the conference of bishops is planning to request an apology from the Pope, and on other next steps, and received no reply.

“I’m just frustrated,” said Vancouver-based Jody Garneau, who spent years working for the Catholic Church, and is one of the signatories. “There’s many layers to violations here. But I think the current church … can offer an amount of relief to the survivors to just give the apology.”

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She wants to see more transparency from her church in sharing historic records, and that funds be raised.

Survivors and their families have been asking for a papal apology for years, which is also included as one of 94 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation’s (TRC) 2015 report. The Pope has never formally apologized for the harms these schools have caused for generations.

A lack of papal apology is not the only area where the church is seen to have fallen short. Some Catholic Church entities failed to produce historic documents, such as daily records, to the TRC as it was gathering information on residential schools. As well, Catholic entities had a financial obligation to pay $25-million as part of the residential-schools settlement for survivors’ healing and reconciliation programs; they ended up, however, raising just $3.7-million.

On Sunday, from St. Peter’s Square, the Pope expressed his pain over the discovery of the unmarked graves, but stopped short of an apology. “I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news,” he said.

“The Pope should certainly apologize, simply because the survivors would like to see an apology – that’s enough,” said David Deane, Halifax-based associate professor of theology at the Atlantic School of Theology, who is a practising Catholic.

He is also calling for “absolute transparency” from the church, on sharing its historic records, and that the church work “much harder” to make funds available for healing programs. Failure to take meaningful action, he said, could mean that “when COVID is over, the churches will be empty.”

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“I am ashamed of my church. I am angry at my church,” said Toronto-based Paula Monahan, a former prioress at a Carmelite monastery in England. She wrote a scathing open letter to the head of the CCCB, Archbishop Richard Gagnon and to Canadian bishops in recent days, demanding change. The CCCB must extend a formal request, inviting the Pope to apologize, she said. “To obfuscate in that way is bad faith of the worst kind.”

In previous statements, the CCCB has stressed that the Catholic community in Canada is decentralized, with each bishop autonomous in his diocese.

In a CBC interview, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, suggested that he doesn’t think a papal apology is necessarily needed. “I don’t know whether seeking always some big and dramatic thing is really the way forward.”

The majority of residential schools in Canada were Catholic-run. In total, about 150,000 children were taken from their families over decades in a system designed to deprive them of their language and culture.

Ms. Garneau, in Vancouver, started a Facebook group a week ago, after the Kamloops discovery, for Catholics to discuss their feelings about the church. The group already has 900 members.

“I’m seeing a groundswell of people who are very connected in the church community, working in the church … feeling very helpless because the bishops – not all of them, but some of them – seem really tone deaf,” she said. “They’re blocking somehow what needs to happen, and I don’t quite understand why.”

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