Pope Francis said on Wednesday he felt the pain of survivors of Canada’s residential school system “like slaps” and that the Catholic Church has to face up to its responsibility for institutions that abused children and tried to erase indigenous cultures.
The pope dedicated his talk at his weekly general audience to his trip last week to Canada, where he delivered a historic apology for the Church’s role in the government-sanctioned schools, which operated between 1870 and 1996.
More than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Catholic religious orders ran most of them under successive Canadian governments’ policy of assimilation.
The children were beaten for speaking their native languages and many were sexually abused in a system Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”
The pope met indigenous survivors throughout the trip and on the last day, mostly elderly school survivors in Iqaluit, capital of the isolated Arctic territory of Nunavut, told him their stories in a private meeting.
“I assure you that in these meetings, especially the last one, I had to feel the pain of these people, like slaps, how they lost (so much), how the elderly lost their children and did not know where they ended up, because of this policy of assimilation,” Francis said in unscripted comments.
“It was a very painful moment but we had to face up, we have to face up before our errors and our sins,” he said.
During the trip, the pope’s apologies evoked strong emotions and praise as a first step in reconciliation, but some survivors said they fell short of expectations and that he had not apologised clearly enough for the Church as an institution.
In an apparent attempt to answer the critics, he said on Wednesday that priests, nuns and lay Catholics had “participated in programmes that today we understand are unacceptable and contrary to the Gospel. That is why I went to ask forgiveness in the name of the Church”.
Some were also heartened when the pope, speaking to reporters on the plane taking him back to Rome on Saturday, branded what happened at the schools as “genocide.”
Francis, who is suffering from a knee ailment, walked the some 20 metres (yards) to his seat on the stage of the Vatican’s audience hall using a cane and at the end remained standing to greet some participants. He later used a wheelchair when aides moved him among the crowd.
He mostly used a wheelchair during the Canada trip, including during his in-flight news conference on the return flight.