Why Pope Francis should apologize
I attended a Roman Catholic school in the late 1960s, run by the Sisters of Charity at Sacred Heart in Lahore, Pakistan.
The sisters worked hard to promote the English language and European culture and values among a predominantly Muslim and Punjabi student population.
We were often chastised for speaking our native language.
We were Muslim, but we even recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The punishments for not following the rules felt draconian at the time, but no one complained, and our families supported the school’s policies.
The idea was to promote a culture of elitism in a country born out of the ashes of colonialism.
English speakers were considered upper class. They still are.
Canada’s residential schools were, of course, a different matter.
Their policy was to obliterate local cultures, against the will of the people they were attempting to assimilate.
By failing to take action against it, these schools also tolerated the premature deaths and physical and sexual abuse of children.
In April, 2009 Pope Benedict XV1 expressed “sorrow” at the way aboriginal children had been treated by many of the residential schools run by the Catholic church.
He was quite forceful in acknowledging the hurt of the children, calling their conditions “deplorable” and offering the Vatican’s “sympathy and prayerful solidarity” with the victims.
These were carefully chosen words, but it was not a formal apology.
Nor was it meant to be, even when it was repeated at a private meeting with First Nations leaders at the Vatican in 2009.
The Catholic church has maintained it is decentralized, that local parishes act autonomously.
Thus, the church as an entity cannot be held responsible for the plight of First Nations children, who attended these infamous schools.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in meeting with Pope Francis Thursday, raised the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential schools.
But he did not ask the Pope to apologize, as it recommends.
We should wonder what has prevented the Catholic church up to now from being forthright enough to accept some of the responsibility.
Other churches involved in the residential school scandal apologized long ago: The Anglican church in 1993, the Presbyterian church in 1994 and the United Church in 1998.
But these churches accounted for only 30% of Canada’s residential schools, which leaves 70% run by Catholics.
Despite the Catholic church’s claim it played no direct role in running the schools, it surely had the power to issue directives that could have stopped abuses.
The Vatican itself could have exercised more vigilance and ensured those in charge of children, who had been taken away from their families, were cared for humanely.
However, it remained aloof.
It cannot be absolved of all responsibility, because it relinquished its duty to intervene when intervention was most required.
Even if the Vatican does not consider the church directly responsible, issuing an apology would be a noble gesture and a step towards healing this festering wound.
The Catholic church has long cultivated the virtues of humility and forbearance.
Apologizing can be painful for institutions, no less than for individuals.
But sometimes, saying one is sorry for past wrongs is exactly what is needed in the healing process.
Let us hope the church under the approachable Pope Francis is up to it.
He certainly seems to project himself as a just and compassionate man who will give the idea serious thought.