POLITICS
03/28/2018 14:51 EDT | Updated 03/28/2018 17:14 EDT

Murray Sinclair Warns Pope’s Stance On Residential Schools Apology May Hurt Church

"The shame of those who abused children in their institutions in the past is now theirs to wear."

Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair raises his arm asking residential school survivors to stand at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on June 2, 2015.
Canadian Press
Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair raises his arm asking residential school survivors to stand at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on June 2, 2015.

OTTAWA — Sen. Murray Sinclair says Pope Francis' decision to not apologize for the role of the Catholic church in residential schools is a "setback" that may affect the institution itself.

Sinclair served as the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 2015, the TRC published its seminal report outlining 94 calls to action to redress the legacy of residential schools. A papal apology was one of them.

Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Pope Francis leads his general weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 28, 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Vatican last year and invited the Pope to visit Canada. During his private audience, Trudeau encouraged the pontiff to consider making a formal apology to residential school survivors and their families in the spirit of reconciliation.

Trudeau has "done what was asked of him," Sinclair told HuffPost Canada on Wednesday, adding he doesn't expect the prime minister to ask the Pope to reconsider.

Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa after the Liberals' weekly caucus meeting that he's "disappointed" with Pope Francis' decision.

Watch: PM 'disappointed Pope won't apologize for residential schools

"Reconciliation is not just between government and Indigenous peoples, it's between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples as well," he said.

Possible divisions

Many Indigenous people across the country are Catholic, Sinclair pointed out. He is concerned the Pope's decision will create divisions in devout Indigenous communities that observe Catholicism.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 506,000 people identified themselves as Indigenous and Roman Catholic. About 63,000 said they associate with traditional Aboriginal spirituality.

Sinclair said considering the Catholic church's papal apologies for past abuses in Ireland and South America, the Pope's decision to forgo a personal apology to residential school survivors "represents a continuation of the attitude among many in the church that no harm was done."

"Canadian Catholic leaders who persuaded the Pope to adopt this position should be ashamed of themselves. The shame of those who abused children in their institutions in the past is now theirs to wear," Sinclair wrote in a Facebook post.

Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), wrote a letter addressed to "Indigenous brothers and sisters" on Tuesday, explaining the Pope's decision.

"As far as Call to Action #58 is concerned, after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond," Gendron wrote.

Church leaders have been inspired by their discussions with Pope Francis over the matter, he said, and are dedicated to helping grassroots reconciliation efforts. The letter hinted at the possibility of a papal visit to Canada.

The Pope feels you have to make good progress on reconciliation because people offer apologies very quickly and they're gone.Archbishop Richard Gagnon

Archbishop of Winnipeg Richard Gagnon, who is also CCCB vice-president, said that part of the reason why Pope Francis didn't want to intervene now is a concern that his words could interfere, and maybe inhibit, ongoing grassroots reconciliation work.

"The Pope feels you have to make good progress on reconciliation because people offer apologies very quickly and they're gone," Gagnon said in an interview with HuffPost Canada. He suggested that words are ephemeral, while actions are more concrete.

"Most people's experience of the church is at the local level. And the Pope has encouraged the bishops to continue their work, and to encourage native people also to continue their work, in the progress of reconciliation."

Handout/Reuters
A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man. in a February 1940 archive photo.

From the 1870s up until 1996, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were taken away from their families, isolated from their cultures, and registered into residential schools across Canada. The facilities were operated by churches and the federal government to execute an "aggressive assimilation" policy.

The TRC called the legacy of residential schools system akin to cultural genocide.

I think Indigenous people can be assured of the Pope's love for them and his concern for their causes as he's spoken out many times.Archbishop Richard Gagnon

When asked what words he has for those who may feel distress or disappointment over the pontiff's decision, Gagnon said: "The Pope loves native people, Indigenous people."

He added that Pope Francis is concerned about the ways Indigenous people have been treated around the world, including in Canada.

"I think Indigenous people can be assured of the Pope's love for them and his concern for their causes as he's spoken out many times."

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