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US Catholics 'sorry' for abuse of Native American children

June 15, 2024

US Catholic bishops have formally apologized for the forced assimilation, abuse and poor conditions at church-run boarding schools for Native American children. The schools operated in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

A woman clenches her hands in prayer at a Catholic Church in Sioux City, Iowa, United States, on March 25, 2022
The new policies aim to address the rift that some Native Americans feel between their tribal backgrounds and Catholic identitiesImage: Jerry Mennenga/ZUMA Press/picture alliance

Catholic bishops in the United States said sorry Friday for the abuses that Native American children suffered at the hands of the Church over 150 years.

In the 19th century, the US government created more than 500 boarding schools for Native children. About 80 of them were run by the Catholic Church.

Aimed at forcing integration with mainstream Anglo-American culture, many of the youngsters were often sexually, physically, or emotionally abused, a US government investigation found. 

Hundreds of children died while in the church's care.

A similar scandal in Canada prompted apologies from the government and Pope Francis.

What did the US Catholic Church say?

In a statement, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said the Church "recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children."

The body that shapes church policy in the US added that "these tragedies" led to addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment and neglect.

"We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care."

The statement went on: "Healing and reconciliation can only take place when the Church acknowledges the wounds perpetrated on her Indigenous children and humbly listens as they voice their experiences."

The Conference ordered church leaders to create listening sessions for Native Americans and incorporate tribal customs into sacred rites.

The bishops also urged Catholic universities to offer more places to Native Americans — some 20% of whom consider themselves Catholics.

An American flag with a prayer book and a rosary
About 3.5% of American Catholics are Native American, according to the US Conference of Catholic BishopsImage: Angela Rohde/PantherMedia/IMAGO

What happened to Native children at these schools?

In the latter part of the 19th century, US authorities removed Native American children from their biological parents and sent them to boarding schools or to live with non-Native American families.

Most schools were run by the government but many were operated by Protestant and Catholic churches, a practice that continued until 1978.

Former students described the conditions at schools as unsafe and unsanitary, with physical or sexual abuse widespread.

A Washington Post investigation revealed last month that more than a hundred priests, sisters and brothers who ran the schools were later accused of sexually abusing Native American children under their care.

More than 1,000 youngsters were abused, mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, with most cases reported in the US Midwest and Pacific Northwest, including Alaska.

As well as being forbidden to speak their own languages, the youngsters were not allowed to practice their own culture and were given new English names.

When they were not in class, the students were responsible for the upkeep of the school. 

The assimilation program was enforced so harshly that many Indigenous groups now refer to the program as cultural genocide and the US government has held several investigations into the schools.

More than 350 US parishes serve predominantly Indigenous people, who make up about 3.5% of US Catholics, according to USCCB statistics.

mm/ab (AFP, AP, Reuters)