How long must we wait for accountability?
It took four years for the Jesuits of Canada to release a list of 27 priests for whom there were “credible accusations of the abuse of minors.” Father Erik Oland, the provincial (or leader) of the Jesuits of Canada, released the list this past March, after the organization announced in 2019 that it had hired an outside firm to investigate historic files going back up to six decades ago. While many of the men on the list are dead, it was still an important and proactive step forward, as not all of them had faced criminal or civil litigation. The Jesuits have promised to maintain the list, keeping it as a living document and adding to it as time goes on.
“We cannot rewrite the past,” Father Oland acknowledged. “We do wish to contribute to reconciliation, to right past wrongs and to rebuild trust.”
The Jesuit action is a welcomed one. But we are still waiting for the French-based Missionary Oblates of Mary the Immaculate, which oversaw a significant number of the Catholic Indian Residential Schools in Canada – 48 of the so-called schools, to be precise – to come clean.
Some of the most notorious residential schools, these places of nightmares, were run by the Oblates. That includes St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, along the James Bay coast in Ontario, where survivors had spent years in court, arguing that the government failed to disclose evidence of abuse that they argue would have led to additional compensation from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They also ran the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, B.C.; Williams Lake First Nation announced last year that 93 “potential human burials” had been found after ground-penetrating radar was used in areas of interest.
The Oblates were also in charge of Kamloops Indian Residential School, which two years ago shocked many in the country when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that the potential graves of as many as 215 children may be hidden in the apple orchard at Kamloops. Those children are called the missing. Le Estcwicwéy.
It is crucial that the names of credibly accused offenders be publicized. After all, the trauma of what happened to the children forced to attend the schools still lives on, decades after the last one closed. As Kimberly Murray, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves associated with Indian Residential Schools told me on Tuesday: “It is important so we can follow the truth and track the perpetrators to other institutions, and it also shows the failed legal system in Canada for not prosecuting these people. Truth is needed to fight the deniers.”
The Oblates, however, are still working on it. “Over the last year, we have heard calls for additional transparency and are actively reviewing how other religious entities – including the Jesuits – have approached additional disclosures, with an aim to identifying any possible improvements that balance the need for transparency and respect for victims’ right to privacy,” said Father Ken Thorson, the provincial of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Lacombe Canada, in a statement to The Globe and Mail.
This isn’t good enough. Not after Pope Francis’s long-awaited apology last year to residential school survivors; not after he acknowledged on the plane back to Rome that what happened in Canada was genocide; not after the Vatican repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, the centuries-old paperwork that allowed Catholic European and then British Anglican conquerors to steal all the land they wanted in the name of civilizing Indigenous people. Change at lightning speed is needed now, and producing this list must be part of that change.
After all, there is already a working relationship between the Oblates and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s appointed keeper of IRS records. Last July, the NCTR’s head of archives Raymond Frogner visited the Oblate General House archive in Rome, and he was given full access to look for records related to the institutions. The Oblates and the NCTR came to an agreement to expedite records and made a public statement about it on July 5, 2021. Since then, nearly 10,000 Oblate records have been “digitized and inventoried, in addition to the 40,000 documents previously transferred to the NCTR,” along with 41 Codices or daily logs, in connection to 16 of the schools. Work to digitize the remaining Codices continues, and the NCTR also has documented the names of 400 Oblates who worked in the schools as well as close to 1,000 students.
The organization can’t stop now. Indigenous people can wait no longer.