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Pope Francis speaks from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to a crowd of faithful and pilgrims gathered for the Sunday Angelus noon prayer, Sunday, June 6, 2021.ds/The Associated Press

Pope Francis expressed his pain over the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school in British Columbia, and urged Canadian political and religious leaders to shed light on the tragedy, but stopped short of an apology.

Francis offered his condolences in a short speech after his regular prayers with the faithful from the window of a papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

Catholic Church ran most of Canada’s residential schools, yet remains largely silent about their devastating legacy

“I am following with pain the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children,” he said. “I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news.”

Last month, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that remains had been found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

On Saturday, the Pope met separately with two high-ranking Canadian cardinals, Michael Czerny and Marc Ouellet. As Undersecretary for Migrants and Refugees, Cardinal Czerny reports directly to the Pope and meets with him fairly often. Cardinal Ouellet, prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, meets with the Pope regularly.

In a phone interview on Sunday, Cardinal Czerny spoke about the Pope’s message. “Pope Francis knows the shock and dismay of what has happened in Canada,” he said. “Wherever there is suffering, he wants to express his closeness and his condolences.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould: Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves a painful reminder of why we need leadership

What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far

He wouldn’t say why the Pope did not apologize, noting that formal apology initiatives would have to come from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). “Regarding a possible formal apology, please refer to the Canadian bishops,” Cardinal Czerny said.

The CCCB so far has yet to recommend a formal apology on behalf of the Vatican. On June 4, it said in a statement: “The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

It said that 16 of the 70 Canadian dioceses, and three dozen religious communities, were associated with the schools, but that each was “corporately and legally responsible for its own actions.”

Cardinal Czerny noted that Francis has, broadly speaking, apologized for the Catholic Church’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.

“In July, 2015, in Bolivia, the Pope apologized to Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas,” he said, referring to the church’s complicity in the oppression of native groups in Latin America during the colonial era. “He has expressed great solidarity, compassion and closeness with the Indigenous people of Canada and indeed to all Canadians.”

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The Cardinal Michael Czerny in his office in Rome during the interview in February 2020.Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

The Pope’s remarks on Sunday fell short for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which demanded a formal apology.

“This was genocide, and it should be acknowledged as such by the perpetrators, the church, the government and the RCMP,” Chief Bobby Cameron said in a statement issued Sunday.

“Survivors and their families deserve an apology for the wrongs committed against them during decades of abuse at federally and church-run residential schools.”

In a later interview, Chief Cameron said people are feeling pained and saddened, and that an apology is just one part – but an integral part – of the healing journey.

“This is not rocket science here,” he said. “It’s only going to take 40 seconds to say, ‘We are deeply saddened and we are very sorry for all the hurt, pain and anguish that the church has done to First Nations people. Please accept our apology.’ "

Ani Dergalstanian, a spokeswoman for Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett, noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to actions included a call for the Pope to issue an apology to residential-school survivors, their families and communities, and that Sunday’s remarks did not go far enough.

“We continue to believe a direct apology from the Pope is an important step in acknowledging the past and moving toward reconciliation,” Ms. Dergalstanian wrote in an e-mail.

In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Francis to visit Canada to make an apology for the Catholic Church’s treatment of Indigenous children in the schools it ran in this country. “I am sure he is ready to go to Canada when the invitation is extended,” he said, suggesting that a formal invitation would have to come from the Canadian head of state and the CCCB.

Mr. Trudeau on Friday criticized the church for being “silent” and “not stepping up” as he called for a formal apology. The United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches have apologized for their roles in the abuse. But it was the Catholic Church that operated most of the residential schools, including the one in Kamloops. It was Canada’s largest such school and was run by the church between 1890 and 1969, then run by the federal government until 1978, when it was shut down.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto called those comments “unhelpful” and “not based on real facts.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins said Sunday that the remarks are unfair, noting that Pope Benedict XVI apologized in 2009 to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations for the abuse experienced by children in residential schools and called their treatment “deplorable.”

In his speech, Francis made no reference to Mr. Trudeau’s request. He spoke of healing, not apology.

“May the political and religious authorities continue to collaborate with the determination to shed light on this sad affair and to commit humbly to a path of reconciliation and healing,” the Pope said.

“These difficult moments represent a strong call to distance ourselves from the colonial model and from today’s ideological colonizing and to walk side by side in dialogue, in mutual respect and in recognizing rights and cultural values of all the sons and daughters of Canada.”

On Wednesday, Archbishop Michael Miller, shepherd of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver, wrote to all First Nations governments and Indigenous communities expressing his “deep apology and profound condolences” to the news about the discovery of the children’s remains in Kamloops.

The church’s archives related to the Kamloops school were provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and remain available for review, he said.

Bishop Gary Gordon of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria called the discovery “a painful tragedy for which words seem inadequate” to express his profound sorrow.

“On behalf of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria, I apologize for the harm caused due to our complicity involved in the operations of the residential schools,” the bishop said in a statement, adding that he is committed to the process of healing, reconciliation and education.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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