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Canadian MPs vote for papal apology on child abuse

May 2, 2018

Lawmakers in Canada called on Pope Francis to publicly apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church for its role in boarding schools that abused aboriginal children. The pontiff has said he can't "personally respond."

The back of Pope Francis' head
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Vandeville

Canadian MPs overwhelmingly approved a motion on Tuesday asking the pope to personally apologize to hundreds of thousands of aboriginal children who were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in Catholic boarding schools, where some of them experienced sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

The vote took place in the House of Commons, with 269 representatives voting in favor of the motion and just 10 opposing it.

The opposition motion for a papal apology had been put forward by Charlie Angus and Romeo Saganash, both politicians for Canada's center-left New Democratic Party (NDP).

The motion's text invited Pope Francis to "issue a formal papal apology for the role of the Canadian Catholic Church in the establishment, operations and abuses of the residential schools."

It also called upon the Canadian Catholic Church to raise promised funds for healing programs for former attendees of these residential schools, and to turn over documents to those "working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system."

'Cultural genocide'

The motion was based on recommendations from a 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The commission spent six years gathering evidence from some 7,000 former students of the Catholic residential schools.

Between 1874 and 1996, some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis children were forcibly taken away from their families and placed in 139 boarding schools that were designed to strip the young individuals of their culture, language and identity and assimilate them into Canadian Catholic culture.

Students in the schools suffered widespread sexual abuse, and at least 3,200 never returned home. The report's findings described the practices as a "cultural genocide."

Carolyn Bennet gestures alongside Chief Maria Brown Martel during a news conference
Carolyn Bennett, crown-indigenous relations minister, has vowed to keep fighting for a Vatican apologyImage: picture alliance/dpa/empics/A. Wyld

Survivors point to the traumatic experience as a root cause of the high poverty rate, alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide in indigenous communities.

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Catholic Church ran 72 percent of the residential schools, with many of them operating on behalf of the Canadian government.

The Canadian government issued its first apology for the residential school system in 2008.

Read more: Trudeau sorry for 'historic wrong' against aboriginal Canadians

Pope cannot personally respond

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed disappointment over the Catholic Church's decision not to apologize for its role in the residential schools. Trudeau sought an apology from the pope during his 2017 visit to the Vatican.

In March, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote an open letter stating that while Pope Francis is aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings, he "felt that he could not personally respond."

Pope Benedict raises his arms while surrounded by cardinals
Pope Benedict said he was sorry for the abuse in the Canadian residential schools, but his apology was not publicImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb/A. Brambatti

Read more: Pope Francis offers Chile sex abuse victims 'gesture of regret and humility'

Trudeau's minister for crown-indigenous relations, Carolyn Bennett, has said that, "Sorrow is not enough."

"One has to take responsibility for the harm that was done, not only to the children that were taken, but for the families left behind and what happened to them," she said following the open letter's publication, promising to continue fighting for the Vatican to reverse its decision.

In 2009 then-Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) said he was sorry for "deplorable" conduct that occurred at the residential schools. However, the statement was not made in public.

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