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Politics Bishops say Pope may come to Canada, apologize for residential schools

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square.

MAX ROSSI/Reuters

Roman Catholic bishops are holding out the possibility that Pope Francis may eventually apologize for the role that the church played in the abuse of children at Indian residential schools.

But, at a news conference on Wednesday that took place just before a motion calling on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to press for an apology was introduced in the House of Commons, two senior Catholic leaders reiterated the position that the church, as a whole, was not to blame for the tragedy.

And they suggested, then refuted the suggestion, that the Pope’s refusal last month to respond to a request for an apology may have just been a matter of timing.

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“He is open to coming to Canada,” Richard Gagnon, the Archbishop of Winnipeg and vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters. “If you place Pope Francis among Indigenous people and he hears these horrible stories, what do you think he’s going to say?”

The New Democrats introduced a motion in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon that was supported by the governing Liberals, as well as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and MPs who are former members of the Bloc Québécois, which asks the Canadian bishops to invite the Pope to visit Canada and to apologize for the abuse at residential schools.

Specifically, it asked for him to meet the terms of Call to Action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which said the Pope should apologize, in Canada in 2016 (within a year of the TRC report being issued), for the role that the Roman Catholic Church played in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in Catholic-run schools.

The motion also calls upon the church to resume its efforts to raise $25-million for Indigenous healing, as required in the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that came into effect in 2007. That fundraising campaign was abandoned in 2015 and just $2.1-million in donations was given to Indigenous causes.

NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Romeo Saganash, and Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, had expressed hope that the motion would be passed unanimously to send a strong message to the Vatican. But some Conservative MPs objected. So a debate and a vote and the motion will be held at a later date.

Garnett Genius, an Alberta Tory MP who was one of those who shouted his opposition, said later on Twitter that: “Catholic entities involved in residential schools have apologized. The Holy See is responsible for next steps, & people are welcome to make their own judgments. It is not for Parliament to call out or dictate to one faith community.”

In fact, individual orders of the church that ran the schools have apologized. But, while Pope Benedict expressed “sorrow” in 2009 for the abuse and “deplorable” treatment of Indigenous students at the schools, there has never been a full apology from the Vatican.

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Pope Francis “never said he wouldn’t apologize. What the Holy Father did say was he would not personally respond to Call to Action 58,” said Archbishop Gagnon. “His response had to do with Call To Action number 58 and its rather strict confines that that call to action called for. He’s open to coming to Canada, he’s open to consider coming to Canada at the opportune time.”

But when asked if that meant the apology was just a matter of timing, since the TRC’s Call to Action asked him to apologize in 2016, Lionel Gendron, the Bishop of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, said: “No, it’s not the issue, I don’t think so.”

As for reopening the fundraising campaign, the bishops argue that there is no legal entity called the Catholic Church in Canada, just individual autonomous dioceses and it is 50 of those smaller dioceses that were responsible for making repayments under the settlement agreement with school survivors.

Archbishop Gendron reiterated that position again on Wednesday saying that, even though bishops may have been involved in the abuse, “it’s not the whole church.”

Mr. Saganash, who attended one of those schools, as did his 13 siblings, said he was sickened by what he heard from the bishops at their news conference.

“When the Pope announced that he wouldn’t apologize, I was, as a survivor, of course, very disappointed,” he said. “And, after hearing what they said today, now I am disgusted. You probably noticed that I walked out because I wanted to go and throw up in the bathroom.”

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