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Pope Francis apologizes for abuse of Canada's Indigenous children, the latest in a growing list of church apologies

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LONDON — Pope Francis on Monday begged for forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools across Canada — the latest in a growing list of apologies from the church.

In the first event of a weeklong “​​penitential pilgrimage,” the pope issued a historic apology to school survivors at a former school near Edmonton, in Alberta.

The pontiff said the church-run schools, which were created by the government to force Indigenous Canadians to assimilate into Christian society to isolate children from their culture, were a “disastrous error.”

"I am deeply sorry,” he said to the crowd. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”

Pope Francis sits between grand chiefs during his visit to Maskwacis, Canada.
Pope Francis sits between grand chiefs during his visit to Maskwacis, Alberta. (Ron Palmer/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The pope said his apology was a first step and would be followed by a “serious investigation.” He added: "Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. … What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and forced into schools. Many of them were beaten, starved and sexually abused in what has been coined “cultural genocide.”

In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of a former school in British Columbia. The bodies belonged to children who were forced into Canada’s state-sponsored schools; some are believed to have been as young as 3 years old. More than 1,300 unmarked graves were reportedly found at the sites of former schools.

The pope’s statement was the latest in a series of public apologies for sins of the Catholic Church. In December 2021, Francis apologized for the way “our brothers and sisters” have continued the division with Orthodox Christians.

In 2018, the pope begged for forgiveness when a grand jury found that more than 1,000 children had been sexually abused by priests in Pennsylvania. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis said of the report at the time. In the same year, he apologized for supporting Chilean Bishop Juan Barros’s alleged covering up of crimes committed by a pedophile priest.

Gerald Gladue holds a photo of his mother, Jeannie Gladue, a residential school survivor, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, where he met with members of the Indigenous community in Edmonton on Monday.
Gerald Gladue holds a photo of his mother, Jeannie, a residential school survivor, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, Alberta, on Monday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

The horrors in Canada echo those that happened in Ireland’s Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. In 2017, the bodies of 796 babies and children were discovered in a sewage tank near the home in the west of Ireland.

Yahoo News spoke with Anna Corrigan of the Tuam Babies Family Group — a nonprofit organization representing survivors and the relatives of those found in the mass grave — about the pope’s apology tour of Canada.

“Those who agree with Pope Francis are still indoctrinated into the church, but remember there are others who burned down churches on the reservations in Canada recently,” Corrigan said.

This year, several churches have been vandalized or burned across Canada — eight of which were in Indigenous First Nations territories, the Guardian reported.

"Pope Francis never recognized what happened here in Ireland or the horror of Tuam,” Corrigan told Yahoo News. “There are also children rotting in unmarked graves around Canada too, but nobody knows how they died and what happened to them and the trauma they went through.”

Pope Francis puts on an Indigenous headdress during a meeting with Indigenous communities, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit, at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis.
Pope Francis puts on an Indigenous headdress during a meeting with Indigenous communities in Maskwacis. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

During his tour of Ireland in 2018, Francis neglected to visit the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, instead vowing to “study” a memo on the atrocities committed there.

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