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The Pope apologized for abuse of Indigenous children. That's not enough.

Without a repudiation of the Catholic Church's Doctrine of Discovery, the pope's apologies fall short.
Image: Pope Francis arrives at the Commonwealth Stadium to celebrate mass as Phil Fontaine stands in the audience watching him.
Pope Francis arrives at the Commonwealth Stadium to celebrate mass as Phil Fontaine, Former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, stands in the audience watching him, in Edmonton, Canada on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Francis is on a weeklong apostolic visit to Canada, not simply to tour, but to extend his apologies to the First Nation people for the devastating abuse their children, grandchildren and ancestors experienced in Catholic residential schools. “I am deeply sorry,” Francis said at a former school near Edmonton, Alberta, on Monday. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”

While Pope Francis has been praised for extending himself, our focus should be on First Nation people who are looking to heal.

The apology tour, or as Francis put it, his "penitential voyage," was requested by groups of First Nation people in a meeting with the pope at the Vatican in April. They said that as part of reparations for the horrific treatment of children in these schools, the pope should “come to Canada, apologize on our native soil, and do it on one of our territories.” Pope Francis agreed to come despite sciatica and bad knees making it difficult for him to walk.

While Pope Francis has been praised for extending himself despite his physical limitations, our focus should be on the First Nation people who are looking to heal after priests, nuns and other administrators in Canadian residential schools raped, beat and otherwise abused them. A 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada includes harrowing stories of such rapes and of children being made to eat their own vomit. Mere healing is not enough. Reparations for the physical and mental abuse generations of First Nation families suffered in these Catholic residential schools must not only be promised but actually paid, even though no amount of money is sufficient.

Sanctioned by the Canadian government, Indigenous residential schools were designed to assimilate First Nation children into Canadian society by stripping them of their culture, heritage and their native languages. These schools remained open until 1996.

Catholic abuse of First Nation children and of African and indigenous peoples around the world can be blamed in part on the church’s Doctrine of Discovery. Asserted in several papal bulls, the doctrine essentially said that if the people of a land did not convert to Catholicism, its lands, its wealth and the people themselves could be taken by the person representing the monarch and the church.

Thus, the First Nation tribes were made subject to the church and its rule. Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Tribe yelled out at the pope Monday, “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery! Renounce the papal bulls! End genocide!” But Francis has said nothing to repudiate the doctrine. Such a repudiation is important, not just for healing, but for the restoration of the lands stolen from First Nation people, and for the return of sacred First Nation items taken by Catholic leaders.

While Francis is listening, praying and interacting with First Nation people in several stops in Canada, it is imperative to understand that he must do more — and do it immediately — to ensure the continued healing and support for those who have suffered at the hands of the church. The Canadian government has pledged $40 billion to the First Nation people for its role in the abuse that happened at those schools, but the Catholic Church, which pledged in 2006 to raise $25 million to be paid to survivors of abuse in Catholic-run residential schools, has paid out less than $4 million.

The Catholic Church, which pledged over $25 million to survivors of abuse in Catholic-run residential schools has paid only $4 million.

Forgive me, then, if I am side-eying the apostolic visit. While these penitential shows of forgiveness are an important step of healing, they do not provide the material support for the deep scarring at the hands of religious leaders who believed that these Native children were less than human. Therefore, there must be more than apologies on the part of the pope and the cardinals and bishops in Canada.

As someone who has written about Catholic abuse for years, I’ve read and heard the pain and suffering of those who experienced terror at the hands of people claiming to represent God, and I was personally moved by watching First Nation people cry at the pope’s first stop, where he met First Nation, Metis and Inuit peoples outside Edmonton. These children and their families have experienced so much. If Francis is serious, his actions won’t stop with an apology. They’ll include his making sure that money, including money for psychological and social services, is given as restitution for what the Catholic Church stole from the First Nation people.