Residential propety

After the Pope’s apology for residential schools, what comes next?

People demonstrate during Pope Francis’ visit to Nakasuk School in Iqaluit on July 29.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

On the first full day of spring 2010, Catholic clergy mounted pulpits across Ireland to make a historic plea for forgiveness.

They read aloud a 4,500-word missive from Pope Benedict XVI who lambasted church authorities in Ireland for mishandling countless cases of child sexual abuse in the country. Two reports published the previous year had detailed how thousands of children had been molested, raped or otherwise abused in church-run boarding schools from 1936 and in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004.

“You have suffered a lot and I am truly sorry,” wrote the pope, addressing the victims.

The Irish letter will ring familiar in Canada, where Pope Francis apologized to residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., during his penitential visit this week. As Canada studies the effects of Pope Francis’ visit and debates the Church’s exceptional obligations to Indigenous peoples, it can look to Ireland for a suggestion of things to come. Although an imperfect parallel, the Irish experience portends an uncertain future.

“We are still dealing with this problem and its fallout,” said Patsy McGarry, religious affairs correspondent for the Dublin-based Irish Times. “The emotional impact on our survivors is a very lively issue here.”

The Irish apology was addressed to the victims, the faithful, the clergy and the aggressors. He expressed a certain frankness, remorse and a desire for change.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada gave it a stamp of approval, citing it as a possible model for a papal apology in Canada.

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The immediate reaction in Ireland was less welcoming. Critics said Benedict’s letter avoided taking responsibility for the Vatican’s role in the scandals and offered no punishment for those involved. In a section of the letter offering “concrete initiatives to deal with the situation”, he prescribed fasting, prayer and Bible readings. He also recommended a spiritual retreat for Irish clergy.

The letter announced an official Vatican investigation into Irish Catholic Church congregations affected by the scandal. He would report two years later and confirm much of what the civil authorities had already found.

So what was the public impact of Benedict XVI’s letter? Media reported that the apology comforted many staunch followers, but much of the country, and especially victims’ groups, rejected it.

‘It wasn’t an apology,’ said Colm O’Gorman, who successfully sued the Irish Diocese of Ferns in 1998 for the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager and later started a support group for victims of abuse. “An apology is an acceptance of responsibility for one’s own failures or the failures of one’s institutions and signals one’s willingness to be responsible,” he said. “There is none of that in any statement that Pope John Paul II has made, that Pope Benedict XVI has made and, frankly, that Pope Francis has made.”

Other reports and scandals would rock the church in Ireland in the years following Benedict XVI’s letter. Pope Francis issued another apology in 2018.

During this time, the influence of the church collapsed in the country.

A 2011 poll found that only 27% of Irish Catholics had a favorable view of the church, and around half of Catholics attended church regularly. By the time the 2020 pandemic hit, regular attendance had fallen to 27%.

The average age of Irish priests is 70, Mr McGarry said, and there are not enough men entering the priesthood to lead all the existing churches in the country. Several congregations that pledged 350 million euros to compensate victims in 2009 remain around 230 million euros short of their target.

“Catholicism as we knew it is in deep trouble in Ireland,” Mr McGarry said.

In Canada, as in Ireland, no apology will dig up the church, he said.

“The pattern is similar in our two countries and in other countries where apologies have been issued,” he said. “There are excuses, abject excuses, and then the church more or less wants to park and move on. But you can’t park it. The problem keeps coming back. »

In Canada, the pope still has a chance to prove the apology is genuine, say Indigenous advocates and many Catholic parishioners.

Shortly after the pope’s apology on Monday, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, released an eight-point to-do list for the pope. This includes publicly rescinding a 1493 papal edict that gave rise to European claims of sovereignty in the Americas, handing over relevant residential school records, repatriating property and remains taken from Indigenous peoples, and ensuring that the Church pays “meaningful reparations” to victims.

“If these things don’t happen, I think there’s a danger that the apology will just be empty words,” said Annie Selak, a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has studied the papal apology.

Rennie Nahanee, a Catholic deacon and Squamish Nation elder, attended the Pope’s mass at Commonwealth Stadium and even shook hands with the pontiff. He would add another request to the to-do list: encourage Indigenous language and culture in the Church, a way to decolonize an institution whose members once punished Indigenous children for speaking their native language in residential schools. “The Vatican could start celebrating indigenous language and culture,” he said. “He needs to be more flexible.”

And he has faith that Pope Francis is up to the task. The pontiff made an effort to dissolve the clergy’s hold on power and give more control to the people in the pews through a consultative process called synodalism. “The church needs to know that they are not above us and we are not above them,” Mr. Nahanee said. “We are equal.”

In Ireland, Mr McGarry says the old centralized model of Catholicism is dying and that synodalism offers the possibility of a revival. The process has already shown that Irish parishioners overwhelmingly want women to be ordained priests, greater membership for LGBTQ people and support for marginalized groups. “Such is the state of the church in Ireland today,” he said, “that people want to sweep it all away and get back to the essence of Christianity.”

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