VATICAN CITY–Pope Benedict offered his sorrow yesterday to aboriginal Canadians who were physically and sexually abused at church-run boarding schools they were forced to attend, saying he sympathized with their anguish and prayed they would heal.
Benedict met a group of former students and victims and told them of his “personal anguish” over their suffering, they said. They emerged from the meeting “happy” and comforted, said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend federally funded Christian schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. Ottawa has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools. The legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by aboriginal leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reserves.
Ottawa has formally apologized and offered billions in compensation. The Catholic Church has paid millions in compensation – but hadn’t voiced any type of institutional regret until yesterday.
“What we wanted the Pope to say to us was that he was sorry and … that he deeply felt for us,” said Fontaine, himself a victim of abuse at one of the schools. “We heard that very clearly today.”
Out of a delegation of 40, five aboriginal and five Catholic Church representatives met privately with the Pope to share their stories.
“The Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” a Vatican statement said.
Fontaine said he was “pleased and encouraged by the … commitment on the part of the Catholic Church to rebuild the relationship. The meeting was all about healing.”
In Ottawa, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the Pope’s words were “much appreciated.”
“It needed to happen for many people before they could move forward,” Strahl said yesterday