Pope asks forgiveness for violence against indigenous children in Catholic schools in Canada

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Pope Francis formally apologized on Friday to the indigenous peoples of Canada for the role of the Catholic Church in religious boarding schools where cases of violence against children and the country’s indigenous culture were recorded.

Last year, a mass grave with 215 bodies of indigenous children was discovered in British Columbia. Reports indicate that indigenous people were taken from their homes and forcibly taken to these Catholic boarding schools; many never returned, and their families received no explanations.

In July, the pope had already expressed sadness over the case – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged the Vatican to take responsibility for its controversial role in running schools for indigenous peoples.

“For the deplorable behavior of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and I would like to tell you from the bottom of my heart that I am very sad,” the pope said on Friday. “I join my fellow Canadian bishops in apologizing.”

In recent days, he has had private meetings with delegations and indigenous leaders, who are hoping the pontiff will repeat his apology on Canadian soil. “This year, I hope to be with you [em 26 de julho]”, said Francisco, referring to Saint Anne’s day and confirming the expectation of a trip to the country.

On its first trip, in 2017, the expected recognition of the church’s responsibility for the treatment of indigenous children did not happen. At the time, Trudeau claimed to have already made this appeal to the pontiff.

Last year, the prime minister was more emphatic and said he was willing to take “stronger measures”, possibly legal action, if the Catholic Church does not “take responsibility” and make public documents and records from the school administration.

“As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed with the position the Catholic Church has taken now and in recent years,” Trudeau said. “But before we start taking the church to court, I’m very hopeful that religious leaders will understand that this is something they need to get involved in.”

Residential schools operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996, with government funding and administration from various Christian denominations, most notably the Catholic Church.

The Kamloops school, where the bodies of 215 children were found, was once the largest residential school in the country, with 500 students at its peak. It was administered by Catholic leaders from 1890 to 1969, when it returned to the control of the federal government until it was closed in 1978.

About 150,000 children from different indigenous communities were forcibly separated from their families and distributed to hundreds of residential schools across the country, where they were prevented from maintaining their customs, studying the culture of indigenous peoples or even speaking in their native languages.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group formed to investigate what was happening in these schools, defined the system as “cultural genocide”. Reports are that children were subjected to violence, abuse, rape and malnutrition. The official estimate is at least 4,100 deaths.

Francis, who became pope 17 years after the last residential schools in Canada closed, has already apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in colonialism in the Americas. But in general, he preferred to apologize outright during country visits and conversations with native peoples.

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