News Headlines > Pope refuses to be pressured as Trudeau pushes for an apology over Church's role in residential schools

29 May 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Pope refuses to be pressured as Trudeau pushes for an apology over Church's role in residential schools

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Church should apologise for its historic role in abusive school system, say Truth and Reconciliation commission

The Prime Minister of Canada met with Pope Francis today (29 May) where he asked for an apology from the Church for its role in a residential school system which saw indigenous children taken from their families and in some cases abused. 

Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, arrived in the Vatican this morning and met the Pope inside the Vatican’s apostolic palace where the pair had a 36-minute private discussion. 

Beforehand, the Prime Minister’s office said he would be pushing for an apology from the Pope stemming from recommendations from the the country’s Truth and Reconciliation commission. The body had recommended that the Pope apologise on Canadian soil for the Church's involvement in the treatment of Canadian Aboriginal children who were subjected to physical violence, derogatory language, neglect and meagre food within a church - and later government - run residential school system. Families were often coerced by police into sending their children to these schools as part of a policy, intended, “not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity,” according to the commission’s findings.

The commission found that at least 3,201 students died while at the schools, often because of abuse and neglect. 

Prime Minister Trudeau had also let it be known to journalists that he would extend an invitation to Francis to visit Canada. 

Following the audience, Trudeau told reporters that he asked the Pope to “move forward on a real reconciliation” with the country’s indigenous people “by issuing an apology” on behalf of the Church for its role in harming their communities. 

A short Vatican statement issued after the meeting said the pair had discussed “integration and reconciliation” but made no mention of a possible apology. 

It is unusual for a government or head of state to “pre-brief” what they are going to say to the Pope: papal audiences, and what is discussed, normally remain private. 

Mr Trudeau, however, is under political pressure to implement all 94 of the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s recommendations, while a visit from Francis would be a boost to the country’s leader, a rising star on the world stage. 

Francis, however, is wary of being drawn into a country’s internal political process, and last year resisted the offer to help select judges for Colombia’s truth and justice panel.

Nevertheless, he has shown himself willing to apologies for the Church’s past errors. In March, Francis said sorry for the Catholic Church's role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide while, on the plane back from Armenia last June, the Pope said Christians should ask for forgiveness for their treatment of gay people.

In 2009, Benedict XVI, did express "sorrow" on behalf of the Catholic Church for the "deplorable conduct" by some members of the church in their treatment of indigenous children in residential schools.

At the end of their meeting today, the Pope handed the 40-year-old Trudeau a medallion marking the fourth anniversary of his pontificate, titled “un abbraccio” - meaning an embrace - and which symbolises joy, forgiveness and mutual acceptance. 

For his part, Trudeau - who was accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau - gave Francis six volumes of a rare set of “Jesuit Relations” books, which tell the story of French Jesuits in Native North America in the seventeenth century. 

This is not the first time the the Jesuit-educated Trudeau has met a Pope: in 1984 he met John Paul II with his father, Pierre, when he was Prime Minister of Canada. 

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