Pope Francis on Friday apologized to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican for Catholics’ role in residential schools and their associated trauma.
The apology came at a general audience after smaller, private audiences with Inuit, Métis and First Nations delegations had been held earlier this week.
“With all my heart, I am very sorry,” the Pope said, speaking Italian. He told Indigenous delegates he felt “sorrow and shame” for Catholics’ role in “the abuses you suffered and lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture, even your spiritual values.”
Pope Francis said he joined Canadian archbishops, who have accompanied each Indigenous delegation at the Vatican this week, in seeking Indigenous peoples’ forgiveness.
Some critics said the Pope had carefully chosen his words to avoid apologizing, in precise terms, for the role of the Catholic Church as a whole. Even so, the apology was welcomed by Indigenous delegates on Friday.
While each delegation has called on the Pope to deliver an apology, delegates have also been clear that they want to see that apology take place on Canadian soil.
The Pope said he intended to visit Canada later this year and appeared to suggest a time frame of late July or thereabouts.
In all, more than 60 Indigenous delegates heard Friday’s apology during an audience at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
Separately, Inuit leader Natan Obed said the Catholic Church had agreed to help bring Father Johannes Rivoire to justice.
On Monday, Obed had asked that the Pope “commit to working with police, governments and Inuit to bring about justice for survivors of abuse and their families,” including by directing the priest Rivoire, accused of sexually assaulting children in Nunavut, to return to Canada. Rivoire has been in France, which does not extradite its citizens, in 1993.
A warrant for Rivoire’s arrest had been outstanding in Canada since 1998 but was cancelled in 2018, in part as the prospect of trying him appeared remote. Even so, Canadian authorities have said the possibility of trying Rivoire still exists if further evidence comes to light and he returns to Canada.
Responding to Friday’s apology, Dene National Chief and First Nations delegation leader Gerald Antoine said the day of the apology “would be uplifted in our history.”
But while Chief Antoine called the apology “a historical first step,” he added it remained only a first step and more had to be done.
The Assembly of First Nations said a cradleboard entrusted to the Pope’s care by its delegation on Thursday had been returned on Friday.
Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee had earlier said whether the Pope returned that cradleboard, a form of baby carrier, would demonstrate his commitment to reconciliation.
“It is a symbol of every Indigenous child who went to residential school – for those who survived and, more importantly, for those who did not return home,” Chief Gull-Masty told reporters.
“We stated to His Holiness: How you treat this cradleboard will demonstrate how you treat our people in the future. By returning the cradleboard to the delegation, he will demonstrate his commitment to our people.”