In his Sunday remarks to worshippers gathered in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis expressed pain over the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children that were found at a church-run boarding school in Canada last month.
But he did not offer an apology, nor did he take responsibility for the deaths on behalf of the Catholic Church.
“I am following with pain the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children,” the pontiff said on Sunday.
“I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatised by the shocking news.
“This sad discovery adds to the awareness of the sorrows and sufferings of the past.”
Ground-penetrating radar was used to confirm the presence of the children’s remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, in May.
Residential schools aimed to assimilate indigenous children into mainstream white Canadian society. The were initially run by the government of Canada, then by various churches, and more 150,000 children were taken from their families and placed in the schools between the 1870s and the 1990s.
The schools claimed to provide necessary education to indigenous children, but they simultaneously aimed to indoctrinate them into Christian and Euro-Canadian ways of life.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were exposed to malnourishment, disease, and sexual and physical abuse, including being beaten for speaking their native languages.
At least 6,000 students are known to have died in the residential school system, though the exact figure is unknown as few accurate records were kept.
The British Columbia school where the remains were found last month was the largest in Canada, and was controlled by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969.
On Sunday, Pope Francis said: “These difficult moments represent a strong call to distance ourselves from the colonial model and from today’s ideological colonising and to walk side by side in dialogue, in mutual respect and in recognising rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.
“Let’s entrust to the lord the souls of all those children, deceased in the residential schools of Canada. Let us pray for the families and for the indigenous Canadian communities overcome by sorrow.”
In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologised for the harm that was caused by residential schools, and has since offered compensation to survivors.
In 2017, Mr Trudeau echoed that apology, sincerely apologising for the “dark and shameful chapter” in Canada’s history. He also asked Pope Francis to apologise for the Catholic church’s role in the residential school system, and to make church records publicly available to assist reconciliation efforts in Canada. No such action was taken.
On Friday, Mr Trudeau but said that Canada was “still seeing resistance” and that he was “deeply disappointed” in the position taken by the Catholic Church.
The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have all apologised for their complicity in the residential school system.
Established in 2008, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed to document the history and lasting legacy of the Canadian residential school system on indigenous students, their families and their communities. In 2015, its findings and 94 “calls to action” to achieve reconciliation were published. One of these calls to action is a papal apology.
Additional reporting by agencies
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