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Pope meets 2 Canadian cardinals as calls grow for Catholic Church apology for residential schools

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Pope Francis met with both Vatican-based Canadian cardinals on Saturday as Canada reels from the discovery of the remains of about 215 children near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., run by the Catholic Church.

The Pope met separately with Cardinal Michael Czerny and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Vatican said in its daily announcement of papal appointments.

Ouellet meets with the Pope every Saturday in his capacity as head of the Vatican department that oversees bishops.

Czerny, the Vatican’s expert on migrants and refugees, does not have a regular weekly meeting with the pontiff. He is a Czech-born Canadian national whose family immigrated to Montreal when he was two years old.

While the Vatican did not say what was discussed in the private audiences, diplomats said it would be highly unusual if the recent events in Canada did not come up.

Pressure for an apology

The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia announced on May 27 the discovery of what it believes to be the remains of about 215 children buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969.

Church officials have so far resisted making public the records related to the school.

Many Canadians have called on the Pope to make a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.

view from window of former kamloops residential school
Seen through an upper window of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, a makeshift memorial to honour the 215 children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility surrounds a monument, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Francis, who was elected pontiff in 2013, has already apologized for the church’s role in colonialism in the Americas, but he has mostly chosen to make such apologies while visiting countries. No papal visit to Canada is scheduled.

Visiting Bolivia in 2015, Francis apologized for the “many grave sins [that] were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that the Catholic Church must take responsibility for its role in running many of the schools.

Many of the children at residential schools were physically, sexually or psychologically abused in a system described by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its landmark 2015 report as cultural genocide.

The discovery of the remains of the children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School has reopened old wounds and is fuelling outrage in Canada about the lack of information and accountability.

In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the system. Trudeau said on Friday many are “wondering why the Catholic Church in Canada is silent, is not stepping up.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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