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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Catholic bishops apologize for church’s role operating Indian boarding schools

By Sari Horwitz and Dana Hedgpeth Washington Post

U.S. Catholic bishops issued a formal apology Friday morning for the church’s role in inflicting a “history of trauma” on Native Americans, including at church-run Indian boarding schools where a Washington Post investigation published last month documented pervasive sexual abuse by priests.

The vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which establishes policies and norms for the church in the United States, represents the most direct expression of regret to date by church officials for past participation in a systematic effort by the U.S. government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into white society. By a 181-2 vote, the bishops approved a document called “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry.” Three bishops abstained.

The document does not specifically mention sexual abuse, but says “we all must do our part to increase awareness and break the culture of silence that surrounds all types of afflictions and past mistreatment and neglect.”

“The family systems of many Indigenous people never fully recovered from these tragedies, which often led to broken homes harmed by addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment and neglect,” the document states. “The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children.”

While the 56-page document covers many aspects of the church’s relationship with Native Americans, it specifically highlights its role in the Indian boarding schools that were created in the 19th century as part of a U.S. government policy to eradicate Native American cultures.

For more than 100 years, children were removed from their families, stripped of their names and often beaten for speaking their languages. Of more than 500 schools, 84 were operated by the Catholic Church or its religious affiliates, according to the bishops’ document.

Tens of thousands of Native American children were forced or coerced from their homes and sent to the boarding schools – the majority of them run or funded by the U.S. government – from 1819 until 1969. By 1900, 1 out of 5 Native American school-age children attended a boarding school. At least 500 children are believed to have died at the schools, according to the first major investigation into the boarding schools by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Post investigation found that at least 122 priests, sisters and brothers were assigned to 22 Catholic-run boarding schools since the 1890s who were later accused of sexually abusing Native American children under their care. Most of the documented abuse happened in the 1950s and 1960s, and involved more than 1,000 children, mostly in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska.

The Friday apology follows decades of efforts by Native Americans who survived boarding schools and their descendants to seek accountability from the U.S. government, the Catholic Church, individual religious entities and the Catholic priests who they said abused them.

Some boarding school survivors and descendants of survivors expressed a mix of emotions from gratitude and sadness to anger and frustration after the bishops’ document was approved. Many Native Americans said they felt it was not nearly enough and called on the pope to apologize.

“The sexual and spiritual abuse of Native children by Catholic boarding school operators is not mentioned a single time,” said Sam Torres, the deputy chief executive officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a group that works to raise awareness about the boarding school era and gives support to survivors and their descendants.

The document, he said, “fails to make sufficient connections between the impacts of historical trauma, and the actions, leadership and responsibility of the Catholic church.”

Warren Morin, whose grandfather and other relatives attended the Catholic-run St. Paul Mission and Boarding School in Hays, Mont., said he was thankful for the bishops’ apology – but he called it “long overdue.”

“It would be more meaningful to people if the pope issued an apology himself,” said Morin, who’s a member of the Gros Ventre tribe on the Fort Belknap Indian reservation. “Because without acknowledgment we can never heal. He needs to admit what they did and that what they did, what happened was wrong.”

Morin said he wants the federal government to do a deeper investigation into the 500 children who died at the schools, and believes survivors and their descendants should be given reparations.

“They owe us something,” Morin said. “How do you put a price tag on losing your language and your ceremonies?”

Jim LaBelle, a 77-year-old Iñupiaq from Fairbanks, Alaska, said he’d waited 67 years to tell of his experiences at Wrangell Institute, a government-run Indian boarding school in the state where he was sent at the age of 8, along with his brother Kermit. He was forbidden to use his Alaska Native name, Aqpaiuq, which means “fast runner,” for the six years he spent there and was instead identified by number, a new one assigned each year.

On Friday, LaBelle said he read the Catholic bishops document and was “elated to some extent and relieved that they would start naming the harm” that was done to Indigenous communities in the boarding school era.

“I think it’s a pretty powerful apology,” said LaBelle, who is a board member and immediate past president of the healing coalition. “But I know it’s only the beginning.” LaBelle said he wants to see the Catholic Church and its entities share more of their detailed records on the schools, the names of children who attended and how they were treated, along with names of those who worked at the schools.

Some survivors and their descendants have taken the issue to court and Congress.

In 2011, the Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to about 500 boarding school survivors, mainly in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. For four years, advocates for boarding school survivors have urged Congress to create a Truth and Healing Commission to investigate Indian boarding schools and the country’s assimilation policy. Legislation to create the commission, similar to one established more than 15 years ago in Canada, was reintroduced in the Senate last year and this year in the House, but has not reached the floor for a vote in either chamber.

In March, members of the healing coalition met at the White House with a top aide to President Biden to ask for a presidential apology for the widespread mistreatment and abuse that Native American children suffered at boarding schools. The White House has not commented about the potential for a presidential apology.

Pope Francis traveled to Canada in 2022 to apologize for the church’s role in what he said was that government’s “cultural destruction and forced assimilation.” But the pope has remained silent about abuses in the United States.

In the document approved by the U.S. bishops Friday, they acknowledged that in boarding schools, “Indigenous children were forced to abandon their traditional languages, dress, and customs.”

“Boarding schools were seen as one expedient means to achieve this cultural assimilation because they separated Indigenous children from their families and Tribes and ‘Americanized’ them while they were still malleable,” the document says.

The Indian boarding school system “left a legacy of community and individual trauma that broke down family and support systems among Indigenous communities,” the document says.

“Sadly, many Indigenous Catholics have felt a sense of abandonment in their relationship with Church leaders due to a lack of understanding of their unique cultural needs,” the document states. “We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care.”

The Friday document seeks to distance the church from what it says were “European and Eurocentric world powers” that devised “their own justifications to enslave, mistreat, and remove Indigenous peoples from their lands.”

“Let us be very clear here: The Catholic Church does not espouse these ideologies.”

The document also makes a nod to the long-standing belief that the treatment of Native Americans by the Catholic Church led to intergenerational trauma that continues today.

“Historical traumas are a significant contributor to the breakdown of family life among many Indigenous peoples,” the document states.

The document calls for more accountability of the Catholic Church and says “all members of the Church should be open to cooperating with Tribal and other government investigations into any Catholic involvement in ethnic abuse.”

The document’s preface states that this is the first time the U.S. bishops group has officially mentioned its relationship with Indigenous communities since 1977, according to the document. Back then, the group issued a seven-page document that, for example, encouraged Catholic schools to “promote programs and activities that will enable students at all levels to appreciate American Indian history, cultures and spirituality.”

The church has addressed abuse by priests in U.S. parishes, but it has said little about the molestation of children in Indian boarding schools. And although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has grappled in recent years with the legacy of the church-run schools, it has not until now issued a formal apology.

In December, according to the Pillar, a news website that covers the Catholic Church, the conference was set to discuss the church’s role in Indian boarding schools, but in the end it fell short of addressing the issue. A document was written by the conference’s subcommittee on Native American affairs, the story said. But the group went into a private session and some bishops were worried that “passages intended to express regret and moral responsibility for that treatment of Native communities could have been interpreted to create potential legal liability for the bishops,” according to the Pillar.

When asked about this account last month, the conference’s spokeswoman, Chieko Noguchi, said “liability issues did not factor into the withdrawal of the document for a vote by the body of bishops.”

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Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.