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Vatican opens door to apology for Catholic Church’s role in residential schools

The Vatican’s ambassador to Canada says Pope Francis is opening the door to an apology to the country’s Indigenous people for the abuse of children at Catholic-run Indian residential schools.

A papal apology was one of the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years investigating the schools. And Canada’s Parliament has voted to ask Francis to visit this country and make the requested statement of regret.

At a private gathering for foreign dignitaries and Canadian politicians held late last month at his residence in Ottawa, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Papal Nuncio, said the request has prompted a “lively discussion” in civil society and the Catholic community.

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Related: MPs urge Pope Francis to apologize for Catholic Church’s role in residential schools

Read more: Bishops say Pope may come to Canada, apologize for residential schools

“Through the media, opinions have circulated giving the impression that Pope Francis would not be available to listen to the request made by the Indigenous peoples” for an apology, Archbishop Bonazzi said in a speech to his guests, which was shared this week with The Globe and Mail.

“I can assure you that Pope Francis is not against a gesture of reconciliation,” he said, “and he is willing to seek together ways that can foster the desired process of healing and reconciliation with and among the Indigenous peoples in this country.”

The Archbishop went on to say that the Catholic Church is committed to studying ways to make meaningful progress toward reconciliation and that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has sponsored “listening sessions” with representatives of Indigenous communities. “Such listening sessions show a way forward and are being encouraged in every diocese and region in the country,” Archbishop Bonazzi said.

The other three religious denominations that ran residential schools – the Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches – have apologized for their role in the abuse. But the Catholic Church, which ran the largest number of schools, has not.

Canada’s Catholic bishops have been unclear about whether Francis is willing to apologize.

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An open letter to Canada’s Indigenous people written in March by Bishop Lionel Gendron, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Francis “felt he could not personally respond” to the request. But, at a news conference on Parliament Hill in April, Bishop Gendron and Richard Gagnon, the Archbishop of Winnipeg, said Francis is open to coming to Canada, and an apology would be the likely outcome of such a visit.

The office of Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that the government believes “an apology from the Pope is an important step in acknowledging the past and advancing reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. We are working with all partners to bring about this important step in reconciliation.”

Ms. Bennett met with members of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops at the end of May, and they agreed to continue discussions.

The minister has also been invited – along with Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the commission, and NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has led the call for an apology – to meet with a group of Catholic officials that was formed to consider the church’s response to Indigenous issues, including the commission’s calls to action.

That group, which calls itself Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, said in a letter to the three politicians that it wants to “highlight for you the many efforts of reconciliation already occurring across Canada.”

Mr. Angus was among those who attended the late June gathering with Archbishop Bonazzi, and said he and the Papal Nuncio had a frank discussion.

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“Them inviting me to the Papal Nuncio’s event means they are taking this vote in Parliament very, very seriously,” Mr. Angus said on Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I recognize that they are speaking very diplomatically. They do not want it to be seen that the Pope is being pushed into action. But I think they get the gravity of the situation.”

Residential school survivor Michael Cheena shares his memories from his years at Bishop Horden Hall Globe and Mail Update
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