Did the Pope Really Refuse to Apologize?

A commentary on whether the Pope should apologize to Canada’s Indigenous people.

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Back in May of 2017, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Pope Francis and asked him to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system where abuse of indigenous children occurred (see Newsweek).  When I first heard about this, I was confused as I thought the Pope had already apologized. I  wondered why the Catholic leader was being asked to apologize again.  Newsweek’s article explains that in 2009 the previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The article asserts that the pope did not formally apologize. Instead, he simply shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy.’

Pope Francis

In March, the headline, Pope’s decision to not issue apology , appeared on the CBC News website. The article says Pope Francis claimed he could not personally apologize for residential school abuses. This month, Global News reported that the Canadian Parliament held a “historic” debate on whether to ask Pope Francis to formally apologize for the substantial role the Catholic church played in the residential school system. This week The National Post reports that Canadian Members of Parliament (MPs) passed a motion to invite the Pope to Canada to apologize for residential schools. The vote was passed by a margin of 269-10 .  One of the advocates of the motion was residential school survivor and MP, Romeo Saganash. The article says that an apology is one of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; a Commission that recommended an apology be delivered in Canada by the pontiff, for the church’s role in the residential school abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children.

All this talk about another apology from a pope piqued my curiosity. If the previous pope, Pope Benedict, already issued an apology, what is this all about? I set out to find out.

The National Observer’s article, Bishops try to clarify Pope’s refusal to apologize for residential schools, says the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a background paper to MPs and senators. The paper says the church has “on a number of occasions expressed regret and remorse at the involvement by various Catholics” in the schools. It also reminds us that Pope Benedict met with a delegation of Indigenous leaders in 2009 “and expressed sorrow and regret for the abuses suffered” in the schools. The Bishop’s paper said Phil Fontaine declared that the meeting with Pope Benedict “closes the circle of reconciliation.” It also said

  “To suggest that the Catholic community has not accepted responsibility for its involvement in residential schools is simply inaccurate. The Catholic Church has apologized in the way it is structured.”

The New York Times article, A Pope Given to Apologies Has Nothing for Indigenous Canada, says that Phil Fontaine has since stated, “It was right for the moment,” about Pope Benedict’s expression of sorrow. “But there’s a lot we didn’t know about in 2009: We didn’t know the number of deaths, the numbers of those abused. So much has been exposed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s really so different now.”

 I have to agree with Mr. Fontaine. Since 2009 we’ve learned a lot more about the horrors that occurred in those schools. In fact, I was shocked to learn doing this post that CBC News reported that Ontario Provincial Police files reveal that an Ontario residential school, St. Anne’s, had built its own electric chair. In my last post, Hockey is Part of Canada, I talked about how residential school students lived in substandard conditions, endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse by brothers, priests and nuns who claimed they represented God.

This begs the question: Was the 2009 apology a true, sincere apology, and what constitutes an accurate apology anyways?  Mindtools.com in its article, How to Apologize: Asking for Forgiveness Gracefully, says to apologize correctly, an apology must:

  1. start with two magic words: “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.”
  2. admit responsibility for actions or behaviour and acknowledge what an offender did.
  3. take action to make the situation right.
  4. explain that the offender will never repeat the action or behaviour again.

Psychology Today’s article, The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology, says in order for an apology to be effective, it must have the following ingredients:

  1. A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of the offender’s actions on the victim(s). In other words, to truly forgive, a victim needs to feel that the offender completely understands the full impact their actions had on them.
  5. A request for forgiveness.

So, do the Canadian Conference of Bishops have a valid argument? Has the Catholic Church given a proper apology? Using the above criteria, l shall analyze Pope Benedict’s 2009 apology.

CTV News in 2009 reported, that the pontiff expressed his sorrow and emphasized that “acts of abuse cannot be tolerated”.  Pope Benedict went on to say,

“Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”

Both Mindtools.com and Psychology Today say the words “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize” need to be used. They were not used by the pontiff in 2009. This is the primary argument for why it was  not a real apology. Pope Benedict’s apology definitely fails on this point.

Psychology Today says there needs to be an expression of regret for what happened. The Pontiff expressed his sorrow at the anguish. I’d say that shows regret, so it’s a pass on this one.

Mindtools.com says an apology needs to take responsibility for actions or behaviour as well as acknowledge what occurred. The Holy Father did acknowledge what happened, i.e. “the deplorable conduct of some members of the church”.  It’s debatable whether he’s taken responsibility. Another word for responsibility is accountability, which means being answerable for one’s actions.  Expressing “sorrow” and “regret” is not being accountable . I’d give a fail for this one.

Psychology Todays says an empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of an offender’s actions on the other person, needs to be given.  Benedict talked about “the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” but that is hardly acknowledging the full impact of the actions. I would give a fail on this one.

Mindtools.com says the offender must take action to make the situation right and promise to never repeat the action or behavior. The pope’s apology fails on these points. Psychology Today says there needs to be a request for forgiveness. This did not happen, so a fail on this one as well.

Canada’s Parliament Buildings

Is our Prime Minister and Canada’s Members of Parliament justified in asking Pope Francis to apologize? After my analysis, I would say a resounding YES. Furthermore, aboard the Papal plane back in 2016, Pope Francis told reporters that gays — and all the other people the church has marginalized, such as the poor and the exploited — deserve an apology (see CBC).  It would seem to me that the indigenous people were marginalized, meaning they were seen as less important by members of the church, as late as 1996 when the last federally operated residential school closed. Actions speak louder than words. The pope needs to put his own words into action and deliver a sincere, acceptable apology to the indigenous people of Canada on behalf of the church he represents. It’s the Christian thing to do!

Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.