VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI apologized Wednesday to Native Canadians who were physically and sexually abused at church-run boarding schools they were forced to attend, saying he was sorry for their anguish and was praying they would heal.
Benedict met with a group of former students and victims and told them of his “personal anguish” over their suffering, they said. They emerged from the meeting happy and comforted, said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indian children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools as an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.
That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indian leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
The Canadian government has formally apologized and offered billions of dollars in compensation. The Catholic Church itself has paid some $79 million in compensation – but hadn’t issued any type of institutional regret until Wednesday.
“What we wanted the pope to say to us was that he was sorry and … that he deeply felt for us,” said Fontaine, himself a victim of abuse at one of the schools. “We heard that very clearly today.”
Out of a delegation of 40, five First Nations and five Catholic Church representatives met privately with the pope to share their stories. The pope spoke with them, off-the-cuff, in both Italian and English.
“Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church, and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” a Vatican statement said.