'There are no human words': Canadian cardinal at Vatican on residential school abuses

The pain that residential school survivors and Indigenous communities have been feeling in the wake of the finding of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in B.C. is compounded by the continued absence of any formal apology from the Catholic Church, which operated many of the schools across Canada.

Pope Francis said he was pained yesterday, but stopped short of saying sorry. As pressure mounts on the Vatican, the Pope recently met with two Canadian cardinals.

One of them was Michael Czerny, who told CTV National News that he hoped the lack of an apology would not take away from the Pope’s sincere expressions of shock and sorrow.

“He speaks out on the things that are close to his heart,” Czerny told CTV’s London, U.K. Bureau Chief Paul Workman in Vatican City. “In this case it's the Indigenous people and many people in Canada who feel this very strongly, very deeply. But all of Canada is wounded. All of Canada is hurt.”

Czerny said he believes the Pope will apologize at some point, theorizing that the Pope may not have provided an apology on Sunday because it would have been spontaneous, and thus “not well prepared,” and that a situation this serious deserves a more measured response.

“It's the Church, the government in Canada, the people of Canada, who will come to an agreement and he will apologize,” Czerny said.

The Pope’s initial statement has been criticized not only for its lack of apology, but for missing the mark in who it addresses. The Pope stated on Sunday that he wished to express his “closeness to the Canadian people” and then added that we should “turn away from the colonial model and walk side by side in dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the daughters and sons of Canada.”

The majority of Indigenous communities do not see themselves as “daughters and sons of Canada,” since the country was built on the theft of Indigenous land and oppression of Indigenous people, making the sentiment ring hollow.

Around 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their parents and faced with sexual and physical abuse in Canada’s residential school system between the late 1800s and the 1990s. It’s believed that thousands died at these institutions, through disease, malnourishment, or directly at the hands of those running the schools, but exact numbers have been hard to pinpoint.

One reason is the lack of records, some of which were destroyed. The federal government alone destroyed 15 tons of documents between 1936 and 1944.

Czerny acknowledged that “as a Church, we’ve been involved in […] suffering and unnecessary suffering, the gratuitous suffering.”

But he did not provide specifics in terms of what he believes the Church’s responsibility is in this situation.

He said it was “probable” that there could be records pertaining to the schools in the Vatican, but that he didn’t know if there were any himself.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, told The Canadian Press last week that churches and the federal government had fought over releasing school records to Indigenous groups for decades.

Czerny said it would be “very surprising” if there were direct orders or permission from the Vatican for church officials running the residential schools to dispose of the bodies of children without proper burials or clear records.

“It just seems completely contrary to everything you would expect,” he said.

“There are no human words to say how terrible it is. It's why we were shocked and sorrowful, and the pain is ours, and the pain is shared. I really hope the Holy Father's words reach the people who feel most abandoned.”

The response of the Pope and the Church as a whole has also been criticized for framing the uncovering of unmarked graves in Kamloops as a “shocking discovery,” as Indigenous people have been speaking out about undocumented burial sites and a greater death toll than the official numbers for decades.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out in 2015, calling for more investigation into residential schools.

Some Catholic organizations in Canada have made apologies and pledged to release records, such as the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran around 47 per cent of Canada’s residential schools.

But eyes are still on the Pope to speak for the Catholic Church as a whole.

An apology on Canadian soil is one of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.

But as of this moment, there is no papal visit scheduled for Canada.

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.