Pope Benedict XVI met privately with a delegation of Canadian native people to express his sorrow for the suffering of native children in Canadian residential schools.
The delegation, which included Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine, former students of residential schools and elders, went to the Vatican at the Pope’s invitation on April 29. The Canadian group also included Archbishop V. James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and representatives from several Catholic dioceses and religious communities.
“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 statement from the Vatican said.
“His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society,” the statement said, adding that the Pope was praying that the victims would heal and move forward “with renewed hope.”
While not an official apology, CBC News reported that Mr. Fontaine, who was a student in a residential school and has spoken out about the abuse he suffered, said he hoped the Pope’s expression of regret would “close the book” on the issue of apologies for residential school survivors. “The fact that the word ‘apology’ was not used does not diminish this moment in any way,” he said. “This experience gives me great comfort.”
According to a statement from the CCCB, the native representatives were all former students of residential schools: Peter Kelly, an elder; Edward John, grand chief of the Tl’azt’en Nation, B.C.; Delia Opekokew, a Cree lawyer; and Kathleen Mahoney, a professor of law and negotiator of the Indian Residential Schools settlement.
According to Archbishop Weisgerber, the Pope expressed his compassion toward native people in Canada for the events that occurred in the residential schools for over a century and assured them of the support of the entire Catholic church. “His face spoke even louder than his words,” said Archbishop Weisgerber. “He listened intently and one could see how saddened he was by these traumatic events of the past and their continued effects on the lives of the people today.”