The Pope expressed sorrow on behalf of the Catholic Church for the "deplorable conduct" of some of its members at Canada's Indian residential schools during a private, half-hour meeting at the Vatican with Canadian bishops and native leaders.
The Canadian representatives described the expression of sorrow as an apology, even though that exact word does not appear in the Vatican's public statement.
Those in the room Wednesday said that they were struck by the depth of Pope Benedict XVI's knowledge of what happened in Canada and the forceful way he spoke against the abuses. While the meeting was private, the Pope acknowledged the delegation of Canadian aboriginals during a general audience address to thousands of people gathered outdoors at the Vatican.
Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, led the delegation and delivered a statement to the Pope about the schools. "I sensed his anguish and pain. He acknowledged our suffering and that is important to me and that was what I was looking for," Mr. Fontaine told a news conference. "We heard him speak about the pain and suffering of so many for so many years, and to also speak about the abuses that were inflicted on so many people and to acknowledge the role of the Catholic church."
The Vatican issued a two-paragraph statement on its website.
"Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity," the statement read. "His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope."
Nearly 75 per cent of the residential schools that operated in Canada from the 1880s to the 1970s were run by Catholic Church missionary congregations. Churches received federal funding on a per student basis to run the schools and implement federal government policies aimed at assimilating aboriginals into the Christian European majority.
Before his trip, Mr. Fontaine had called a Catholic apology "the missing piece," because the other churches involved in the schools had already apologized. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government last June.
The Catholic entities involved with the schools issued two written apologies in 1991. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate apologized in a four-page letter for the physical and sexual abuse as well as for the very existence of the schools. The letter said the system was inspired by a "European superiority complex" that dismissed native spiritual practices as "pagan and superstitious."
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, whose department funded the $95,000 trip by the aboriginal delegation, called the Vatican's expression of regret a very significant step.
Canada's Conservative government completed an out-of-court settlement with former residential school students in 2006 that will provide billions in compensation. The settlement also called for a five-year truth and reconciliation commission that would tour the country and compile the official history of the schools.
Disagreements over process led to the resignations of all three original commissioners and the project is essentially on hold. "I'm hopeful, very soon, to be able to announce some new commissioners," Mr. Strahl said.
With a report from Reuters in Vatican City