VATICAN CITY, APRIL 29, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI is lamenting abuses by Church members against indigenous Canadian children in residential Catholic schools, and is offering prayerful solidarity to the aboriginal peoples as they move forward.
The Pope said this today after the general audience in a meeting with representatives from the Catholic communities and aboriginal peoples of Canada, including Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, and Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference.
During the meeting, the Pontiff “listened to their stories and concerns,” a Vatican press release reported.
He “recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples.”
Acknowledging 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.”
Benedict XVI emphasized that “acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society,” and he prayed that “all those affected would experience healing.” He encouraged the indigenous peoples “to continue to move forward with renewed hope.”
At an April 15 news conference, Archbishop Weisgerber noted: “Since the earliest European settlements in Canada five centuries ago, there has been a close association between the indigenous people and the Catholic Church.”
“Most of this history has been a wonderful sharing of faith and witness,” he affirmed, “but there have also been moments of sorrow.”
The prelate explained: “Among the greatest disappointments were the former Indian residential schools.
“Certainly, there were many examples of great dedication in the efforts at the time to provide a good education for indigenous children; this generosity and goodwill involved school staff, including men and women religious from Catholic missionary orders; elders and parents, and the children themselves.
“At the same time, there were also terrible challenges, including important cultural differences, insufficient government funding, and human failings, and worst of all instances of exploitation and cruelty.
“From today’s perspective, we are all very conscious of the tragic limitations of the residential schools, especially from the perspectives of family life, community values, and cultural heritage.”
Archbishop Weisgerber affirmed that the sufferings of the indigenous people are not only in the past or linked to the schools, but that aboriginal Canadians “continue to be marginalized and impoverished.”
He called on all Canadians to “make new and sustained efforts to collaborate with indigenous people in order to assure them of respect, acceptance and equality.”
The prelate reported a new partnership, begun last fall, between the aboriginal peoples and the Catholic Church. “It is a most promising moment for reconciliation, bridge building, renewed partnership and new dialogue,” he affirmed.
He continued: “The Pope is a bridge builder. That is the meaning of the word ‘Pontiff.’
“For that reason, he has invited us to visit him in Rome, in a gesture of reconciliation and healing.
“By accepting this invitation, as representatives of the Catholic Church in Canada and of the First Nations we can show and celebrate our mutual determination for a renewed partnership and a new beginning.”
The first residential schools were founded in the 1840s, with the purpose of assimilating the children into European-Canadian society. Indigenous families were required, under penalty of imprisonment, to send their children to live at the schools from ages six to 15.
Funded by the federal government, the schools were run by various religious denominations and congregations, approximately 60% of them Catholic. Reports emerged of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and physical and sexual abuse, and schools began to close.
Accusations of forced assimilation and “cultural genocide” led to a public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last June to a representation of the approximately 80,000 living former students of the system which sought to “kill the Indian in the child.”