Catholic bishops should listen to their members and do the right thing on residential schools


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The leadership of Canada’s Catholic Church is failing spectacularly in dealing with the biggest crisis the church has faced in living memory — its role in the tragedy of residential schools.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/07/2021 (518 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The leadership of Canada’s Catholic Church is failing spectacularly in dealing with the biggest crisis the church has faced in living memory — its role in the tragedy of residential schools.

Instead of stepping up and taking full responsibility, with appropriate actions to follow, the church’s leaders are finding all kinds of reasons not to do the right thing.

This isn’t just finger-pointing by non-Catholics, far less “persecution,” as the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested this past week. Canadian Catholics themselves are shaken and many are deeply disappointed in their leadership.

- AP Pope Francis speaks from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at The Vatican.

An editorial in the Catholic Register calls the discovery of bodies in unmarked graves at the site of residential schools run by Catholic organizations a “punch in the gut.” And a petition signed by more than 5,900 Catholics, including priests, nuns and scholars, makes this blunt statement: “We are hurt by the Church we love and belong to because of its lack of action and apparent willingness to minimize and not fully assume responsibility for its and our role in one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.”

There’s a lot of anger, too. A string of Catholic churches on Indigenous land have been burned to the ground under highly suspicious circumstances; another church just north of Edmonton burned on Wednesday. This is plain wrong; if deliberately set those are crimes that should be investigated and punished. At the same time, there’s no mistaking how much rage is building against the church.

It’s true that the Catholic Church, which operated about 70 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, shares responsibility with many others. After all, the church, along with the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, ran those schools on behalf of the federal government — on behalf, in other words, of all Canadians.

But the other churches and the government have at least apologized, something the Catholic Church as a whole still hasn’t done. Individual bishops and archbishops have expressed various degrees of sorrow and regret, but the church as an entity has not.

Nor has the collective leadership of the Canadian church, in the form of the conference of bishops, made clear that it believes the Pope should step up and fulfill one of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — that he should personally come to Canada and apologize for the Catholic role in residential schools.

The bishops apparently don’t think it’s their place to put such pressure on Pope Francis. But the longer they worry more about the church’s hierarchical structures than they do about ensuring that justice is done, the worse it will be for the Canadian church.

This week it was confirmed that a delegation of Indigenous Canadians, including leaders of First Nations, Inuit and Métis organizations, will meet with the Pope at the Vatican in December. This sets the stage for the Pope to issue a formal apology, and we should all hope he steps up.

If any Pope is well-placed to do this, it’s Francis. He has already issued a general apology for how Catholics treated Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, and he has a track record as a compassionate leader on a wide range of issues. He must surely be able to see his way to heal the wounds.

The Canadian church’s role goes beyond apologies. A key part of addressing the tragedy of deaths at residential schools and the unmarked graves where many small bodies lie, is identifying and honoring those grave sites.

Some Catholic organizations have not shared all their historic records with Indigenous groups and others seeking to identify the dead and where they lie. It’s been argued that Catholic orders are independent and don’t necessarily take orders from any central body, but the bishops should do everything possible to make available whatever records exist.

There’s also money. Back in 2006 the government and religious groups that ran the residential schools agreed to a settlement for damages suffered by survivors of the schools. The Catholic “entities” that operated most of the schools agreed, among other things, to contribute $25 million for healing and reconciliation programs, using their “best efforts” at fund-raising.

Yet somehow their best efforts resulted in just $3.7 million, or about one-seventh of that amount. The federal government pressed the Catholic groups to do more, but they went to court and successfully defended their record.

Meanwhile, as some residential school survivors have noted, Catholics in Saskatoon managed to raised $25.8 million for a handsome new cathedral that opened in 2012. The obvious conclusion: the money could be found if it was for something the church actually cared about.

All Canadians, including their governments and many other organizations, are finally facing up to their role in the residential school system and the legacy that lives on into the present day.

The Catholic Church, given its outsized role in the system, has a special responsibility. Its leaders need to listen to their own members, and to their own conscience, and do the right thing.

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