skip mobile navigation
skip top site navigation

Vatican’s sidestepping of moral, legal obligations on full display for Canada’s Indigenous

Getty Images

Pope Francis interacts with members of the Association of Indigenous Peoples at the Vatican in 2018. Many First Nations in Canada and the United States are demanding an apology from the Pope for the centuries of torment committed on Indigenous people however, given the church’s blatant disregard for its legal and moral obligations to Indigenous survivors stemming from a 2005 settlement, that may not happen. 

Much of the world reacted in shock at the 2021 discovery of 215 children’s remains in unmarked graves at British Columbia’s Kamloops Indian Residential School. Within weeks more than 1,000 children’s bodies were then uncovered at more of these predominantly Catholic Church-run “schools” across Canada, sparking outrage from across Turtle Island by Indigenous peoples who, for many generations, knew of the horrors being committed at these facilities but were never listened to.

Even as the Catholic Church remains in damage control mode throughout the world for the torment heaped upon innocent children going back centuries in a variety of now well-known scandals, an actual apology from the pontiff himself for the glaring misdeeds of the church doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. Calls for a public papal apology on Canadian soil have come from Indigenous leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Parliament, and more, but those hopes were initially stifled by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops who wield the real power behind any visit from the pope.

While the pope is authoritative over the Catholic Church, he respects the autonomy of local bishops, and without a unanimous invitation from local bishops, the pope will not simply show up in a foreign country. Therefore, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was not unanimous in its opinions regarding the need for an apology until it finally gave in to mounting pressure from the public in October 2021. It was then the Vatican finally announced the Canadian bishops had extended an invitation for a papal visit in the “context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” Yet neither the bishops nor the Vatican made any mention of a planned apology, and no date has been given for the visit.

In June 2021, following the heinous discoveries at the schools, Pope Francis invited a small delegation of Canadian bishops, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis leaders to Rome for December meetings, however the visit was indefinitely postponed because of the ongoing pandemic. No mention was made by any members of the delegation or the Vatican of a planned apology.

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI apologized directly to victims and families of church sexual abuse in Ireland but stopped short of requiring any discipline of the Roman Catholic leaders responsible, and there were no apologies given to other countries involved in the same scandal. In 2015 Pope Francis apologized to the Indigenous peoples of what is now Bolivia for the church’s role in the brutality of colonization, and while other examples of papal apologies exist many feel the church’s continued adherence to their Doctrine of Discovery hollows out any words of apology.

Written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery says all lands not inhabited by Christians are available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christians. It was the basis for all European land claims in the Americas and the foundation for the westward expansion of the United States. Condemned by the United Nations for its human rights violations, the church’s refusal to denounce the doctrine demonstrates their own hypocrisy. It was also cited as recently as 2005 by late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her land ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

In June 2021, United States Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered the formation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. Its purpose is to investigate the loss of life and traumatic legacy of the more than 365 Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) – led boarding schools operated here in the U.S. Catholic religious orders administered at least 84 of these schools while Jesuits managed at least four. Haaland has ordered the investigative report be issued in April 2022.

Given the unlikelihood of a papal apology for the attempted cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous, there’s little reason to expect one in the United States. Further muddying the waters in the relationship between the Vatican and Canada’s First Nations is the church’s refusal to fulfill its legal obligations stemming from a settlement agreement reached in 2005 with former residential school students. Survivors and advocates involved in those proceedings say the church still owes upwards of $60 million on the $79 million settlement, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever see it even though the Vatican, which has tens of billions of dollars in assets, could easily do so.

In an almost unconscionable legal reversal, the Canadian court system then absolved the church of its financial obligations to those survivors, and to this day nobody in government has satisfactorily answered the question as to why. While the church cried poor in the courts, they simultaneously forked out $28.5 million for a new cathedral in Saskatoon. Money the church promised to victims instead went toward their own legal fees. The Vatican was the only European country that refused to join talks on Holocaust reparations to Jews following World War II, not surprising as a network of church priests, bishops, and cardinals helped establish escape routes for Nazi war criminals in what was known as Project Odessa.

While First Nations in the U.S. watched the Canadian residential school drama unfold throughout 2021, they now await Haaland’s report coming in April, the details of which are unknown. Her report may yield many answers regarding the treatment of Indigenous youth at boarding schools here in the U.S. at the hands of the Catholic Church, but watching the church sidestep its moral and legal obligations in Canada leads to the real possibility they will only do the same here.