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Religious Tolerance logo

Abuse at Native residential schools in Canada

Church apologies: 1994-NOV to 2002

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1994-NOV-10: The Roman Catholic Church issued a non-specific apology:

We have been unable to find a specificapology by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada for the physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional, and cultural abuse of Natives in its residential schools. However, Pope John Paul II did issue a generic apology within an Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. In it, the pope said that in spite of the cultural conditioning of times past, the Church had an obligation to express regret for the "weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied [the Church's] face."

No admission of error on the part of the Church itself is possible, because of the Catholic belief of the Church's historical purity and absence from error. But the pope was able to express regret at actions by past members of the Church. Unfortunately, it was probably not very meaningful for Canadian Natives, because of its lack of specificity. Neither Canada nor its residential schools were mentioned. Also not mentioned were:

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1998-OCT-27: Apology by the United Church of Canada:

The Right Reverend Bill Phipps, Moderator of The United Church of Canada read an apology on behalf of the denomination. It was directed to former students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, their families and communities. It said, in part:

"As Moderator of The United Church of Canada, I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church's involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada's First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry." 2

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2002-MAR-12: Pope John Paul II issued a second generic apology:

The pope included three prayers in his Mass which verged on an apology. The first prayer is most closely related to abuse in Canadian residential schools. However, the Pope asks for the forgiveness of God, not forgiveness from the church's victims:

  • In a "Confession of Sins Committed in Actions Against Love, Peace, the Rights of Peoples, and Respect for Cultures and Religions" the pope prayed:
    "...Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions: be patient and merciful towards us, and grant us your forgiveness!"
  • In a "Confession of Sins Against the Dignity of Women and the Unity of the Human Race" he prayed:
    "Lord God, you willed the diversity of peoples within the unity of the human family. At times, however, the equality of your sons and daughters has not been acknowledged, and Christians have been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion, consenting to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic differences..."
    No reference was made to acts of discrimination by the church towards persons of minority sexual orientations or toward transgender persons or transsexuals.

  • In a "Confession of Sins in Relation to the Fundamental Rights of the Person" he prayed:
    "...For all those who have committed acts of injustice by trusting in wealth and power and showing contempt for the 'little ones.' " 3,4
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If you know of any church apologies that we have missed, please let us know.

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References used:

  1. Pope John Paul II, "Tertio Millennio Adventiente,"
  2. The Right Reverend Bill Phipps, "[Apology] To former students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, and to their families and communities" at:
  3. "Residential School Project Newsletter," 2000-MAR, at:
  4. Pope John Paul II, "Universal Prayer: Confession of sins and asking for forgiveness," at:
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Copyright © 2000 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-03
Latest update: 2017-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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