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A memorial at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, in recognition of the discovery of children's remains at the site of a former Kamloops residential school.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

George Valin is a Catholic who retired in 2019 after 28 years of service as a judge on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation who serves on the Reconciliation Advisory Committee of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

There have been no reports of flags at the Vatican being lowered to half-mast, as they have been across Canada, to note the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops – even though it was Catholic-operated. The unmarked burial site is a stark reminder of the indignities and violence inflicted on, and the continued suffering endured by, the survivors of these institutions, their families and their communities.

Today, the words of former senator Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, continue to ring loud and clear: “This nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”

According to the TRC’s final report in 2015, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend 130 residential schools established by the federal government and operated by various church denominations. Of that number, the TRC found that more than 6,000 students died or disappeared.

More than 80,000 residential-school survivors are still alive today, and many of them who testified before the commission described the horrific conditions. In addition to that egregious breach of trust, the commission concluded that all students had been the victims of cultural genocide.

The TRC stated that reconciliation requires “an awareness of the past, acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” That atonement cannot be achieved without the fulfilment of the commission’s Call to Action 58, which calls upon the head of the Catholic Church, whose religious orders operated the plurality of residential schools – 73 of the 130 schools, including the one in Kamloops – to make an apology in Canada to survivors. Notwithstanding its decentralized corporate and legal structure, the Pope is recognized by Catholics, and most other people in the world, as the universal pastor and supreme head of the Catholic Church. The continued absence of an apology from him serves to deny survivors of Catholic-operated schools, as well as the countless numbers who died, the dignity of having their suffering properly acknowledged.

But in a statement released on Monday, Archbishop Richard Gagnon, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), made no mention of a papal visit or apology.

Previous efforts to pursue this apology have come to naught. In March, 2018, Bishop Lionel Gendron, the then-president of the CCCB, issued an open letter to Indigenous peoples in Canada advising that the Pope felt he could not personally respond to Call to Action 58. That letter, however, failed to disclose two material facts: that Catholic Church protocol stipulates that the Pope will not visit a country unless he first receives an invitation from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of that country, and that the CCCB had not invited the Pope to do so.

When asked, in 2020, why his predecessor’s letter failed to mention this, Archbishop Gagnon replied: “Not everything can be said in a letter … the issue is in continual reflection and evolution. Conversations are ongoing.” And when asked to explain why the CCCB has not invited the Pope to Canada to deliver the requested apology, he replied: “Discernment around this issue is still ongoing. The Holy Father has told us that first of all it is vital to work with the Indigenous peoples on the local level before anything else can be envisioned. This is what we are doing.”

Church leaders appear to be suffering from a serious case of “clericalism” – the assumption that they are superior to the laity and that their authority should be accepted without question by those without a clerical designation.

The CCCB president ignored the fact that Catholic lay people have the right to ask respectful questions of their clergy and to receive complete, transparent and candid answers. The questions submitted to him were respectful, clear and unambiguous; his answers were unresponsive, evasive and not transparent.

Catholic-operated residential schools were located in only 16 of the 60 dioceses in Canada, and one wonders whether the majority of bishops feel no need to address residential school horrors such as have been discovered in Kamloops because there was no residential school in their diocese. But by failing to do so now, the bishops of Canada risk extensively eroding credibility and trust in their leadership. It is time for Catholics to confront stubborn church leaders, ask that they act with decency and courage and to do the right thing: invite the Pope to Canada without further delay, to deliver the apology requested in TRC Call to Action 58.

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