It was one brief mention, made in the midst of Monday’s apology to Indigenous residential school survivors and their families: Pope Francis wants to see a “serious investigation” into what took place in the schools.
Noting that the apology “is only the first step,” he said an important part of this process “will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.”
He didn’t mention who would conduct such an investigation, nor what would be investigated. The Holy See press office didn’t respond to questions seeking clarification about an investigation, including whether this is a new effort or part of a process already under way.
The word “investigation” is open to interpretation – it could mean anything from a general investigation into the history of the residential schools – something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did in its sweeping 2008-2015 probe – to providing further archival records, assisting in the search for missing children, or a criminal investigation of perpetrators of abuse at the schools.
Neil MacCarthy, church spokesperson for the papal visit, said that though he cannot speak for the Pope, he believes he was referring to transparency. Pope Francis “profoundly desires for the Catholic community to continue taking steps toward the transparent search for truth, and to foster healing and reconciliation,” he said in an e-mail.
“We know that truth comes before reconciliation and as an assembly have made a national pledge to provide documentation that assists in the memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves,” he said. Since then, dioceses “have worked closely with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to ensure survivors and their communities have access to relevant archival records that help them come to terms with this painful legacy.”
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, partner at Lafond & Mack Law Group in B.C., says a serious investigation is a “commitment to engage fully with civil authorities in Canada to provide records, work with the Interlocutor Kim Murray, [who is working with Indigenous communities on the unmarked graves searches] and to share personnel records and other details of staff at the schools.”
The TRC collected 7,000 statements along with millions of records in its search for the truth of what happened at the schools. The materials are now with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based in Winnipeg.
The work continues. In a speech in Maskwacis, Alta., Monday, the NCTR’s executive director Stephanie Scott noted that recently it has developed a “positive working relationship” with the church and some of its institutions and has now been given access to records the TRC was unable to obtain in its process (the church has faced strong criticism from experts and researchers who say some entities in previous years refused to share key archival records with the TRC).
Now, Ms. Scott said, the NCTR is embarking on a new initiative. “We are about to start a new process of statement gathering to better reflect the voices of those survivors who were not able to share their stories during the period of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but who wish to do so now.”
The NCTR said Tuesday that “compensation by the church and continued collaboration to uncovering the history of their involvement in the residential school system” are among the actions it sees as necessary to show accountability.
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An anticipated investigation could address several elements contained in a document handed to the Pope in Rome earlier this year by the Métis delegation, said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council. Based on consultations with survivors and families, it outlined what a pathway of truth, reconciliation, justice and healing can look like, she said.
These include the appointment of an independent investigator to review residential school records and survivor testimony, and refer evidence of potential criminality to relevant law enforcement authorities; providing unfettered access to and releasing all church records, and a commitment not to shield alleged perpetrators of crimes within the residential school system, or prevent their extradition to Canada for prosecution.
One case is that of Father Johannes Rivoire, a retired priest in Lyon, France, who is charged with sexual assault; his alleged victims say he abused them as young children in Nunavut. France has received a request from Canada to extradite him, Reuters reported.
There are precedents for independent investigations of the church’s past wrongdoings. In France, a commission last year said that French clergy sexually abused more than 200,000 children over the past 70 years. The independent commission was established at the request of Catholic bishops. In Canada, an independent audit, released in June, based on eight decades of files involving nine dioceses in Quebec found at least 87 abusers among church staff.
For Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of the TRC, the church must go further in accepting responsibility and telling truths of what happened. “It was more than the work of a few bad actors – this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” he said.
Next steps in reconciliation require “action, not passiveness,” from the church, he said. This includes “taking responsibility for past actions and resolving to do better on this journey of reconciliation.”
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Survivors and NCTR staff unveiled a commemorative cloth on Monday to mark the Pope’s visit to the former Ermineskin residential school. It listed the names of 4,120 children who died or didn’t return from the schools. The NCTR says this number will grow as more children are found.
Calls to open up archives and be more forthcoming about the truths of the past are not just under way in Canada. In the U.S., Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, issued an open letter Monday, saying the Catholic Church holds key documents about federal Indian boarding schools “that can help bring the truth to light,” and called upon the church to open all records relating to the schools.
For Kukdookaa Terri Brown, a residential school survivor and the founding chair of the survivors circle with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the word “investigation” means bringing perpetrators to justice, opening up the archives, and finding more about the children who didn’t come home.
She hopes this process means “finding the graves of the children who are missing and putting names to these children,” she said. “They never had any dignity in their lives. Let’s give them some dignity in their deaths.”
With a report from Patrick White