Monday, March 27, 2023

Church amnesty: Top leaders express regret for historic sins

When Pope Francis apologizes to indigenous groups on Canadian soil this week, he will make another effort to repair the damage done to church-run residential schools – and add to the Catholic Church’s growing book of atonement for past crimes. Will give

Like the papacy, top Protestant leaders have gradually issued institutional mea criminals for the historical wrongs of their churches. Many apologies on behalf of Christian denominations are for serious crimes: genocide, sexual abuse, slavery, war, and more.

While increasingly common, church apology is a relatively modern phenomenon, said Jeremy Bergen, church apology expert and professor of religious and religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.

“For 1,900 years, churches did not apologize for the bad things they did,” Bergen said.

He points to the pivot of significant apologies that followed World War II, most notably a declaration by Germany’s Protestant churches that they had failed to adequately resist the Nazis. Bergen said this was the first in a chain of recognition that Christian institutions themselves had done wrong. In the 1990s, the Church’s apology increased because of the increased focus on human rights after the Cold War, he said.

The Pope went to Canada on Sunday to apologize for the mistreatment of indigenous people in the country’s state-funded residential Christian schools. From the 1800s to the 1970s, Native children were forced to attend schools where abuse was rampant.

The apology follows a similar Francis made in April in Rome to members of Canada’s First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities.

The setting matters, said Fernie Marty, a member of Papasches, a Cree nation in Alberta. The 73-year-old is a survivor of a day school – part of a system that, like residential schools, aims to assimilate Indigenous children.

He praised the Pope’s Rome pardon, but “that’s where all the atrocities happened,” Marti said. It is “coming more meaningful to Canadian soil.”

Marty, an elder at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, a Catholic parish in Alberta’s capital, said the Pope’s visit “offers a tremendous opportunity for my own personal healing.”

But George Pipestem, 79, a Montana First Nation member and survivor of the Erminskin Indian Residential School, questioned the relevance of the pope’s apology, just as he questioned an apology by Canadian prime ministers for the government’s role in schools.

He added that abusers should apologise: “They’re all gone, though. I’m apologetic, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s like nothing. It’s just one word.”

It is not uncommon for a leader who was neither involved nor alive when a church has been wronged to grant an apology. It took generations to say sorry to some people.

Graham Dodds, a professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal who researches political apologies, says institutional responsibility can extend beyond the present time or even a single individual’s lifetime.

“It’s part of being a leader to acknowledge that connection with things of the past,” he said.

St. John Paul II accepted that responsibility and left a legacy of papal pardon. None was more significant than their list of Mea criminals released after the Catholic Church opened its 2000 jubilee and entered its third millennium.

John Paul apologized for the sins of Catholics over the centuries, including those against women, Jews, and other religious minorities. In his most memorable work, he affixed a prayer letter to the Western Wall in Jerusalem asking God for forgiveness for those who have “suffered these children of yours.”

He wanted “something of a clean slate,” Dodds said.

The following year, when John Paul sent his first email, it was an apology for colonial-era abuse of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the Pacific, as well as sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, also apologized for the clerical misconduct, most notably in a 2010 letter to the Irish faithful. He said he was “really sorry” for the injury and blamed the Irish bishops, although he was silent on the Vatican’s responsibility.

Francis has gone ahead, first apologizing for his mistakes in defending a Chilean bishop who covered up abuse by the country’s most notorious pedophile priest. That 2018 scandal was a turning point in Pope’s understanding of the abuse, and he continues to apologize for it.

Juan Carlos Cruz, who was abused by that priest, received an apology from the church and a personal apology from Francis. Cruz said it felt like finally the church recognized the loss he was doing, and that he could begin healing. It also inspired Cruz, now a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to continue advocating for survivors.

“Pope Francis had an honesty that was hard not to believe. And it’s not because you’re sitting in front of a pope. … It’s because of his humility and honesty,” Cruz said. “Trust me. I have received apologies from a lot of people in the church who are as fake as you can imagine. ,

Francis has also apologized for the mistakes made by the church against indigenous peoples during the US conquest of Bolivia in 2015.

Dodds said timing, word choice, and contrast are key elements for an apology to be effective. Bad apologies try to justify or explain the wrong, while the good ones acknowledge the mistake and state, “It was wrong. … It won’t happen again. Please, I’m sorry,'” he said.

What comes next also matters, said Rev. Dwight McKisick Sr., senior pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. He is a black minister at the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 in support of enslaved missionaries.

In 1995 it took 150 years for SBC representatives to reject slavery and apologize for racism. It was overdue and the right thing to do, McKisick said, but he wanted to see if SBC would follow through with more leadership diversity.

He recalled visiting convention headquarters in Nashville in 2007 and being told that the top African American working in the building was a patron. When he recently returned, the top position was held by Willie McLaurin, the first black man to head the SBC’s executive committee.

“This is progress,” McKisick cautioned, adding that there is still room for “much improvement” such as greater diversity among leadership and seminary professors.

This year SBC representatives also apologized for the harm caused to survivors of the church’s sexual abuse.

The United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, apologized more than 20 years ago for its role in running 15 residential schools for Indigenous youth.

The Right Rev. Richard Bott, now the church’s moderator and top spiritual leader, said institutional repentance and his predecessor had put a work in progress in motion in 1998.

“It’s not a job that’s done in a day,” said the bot. “It’s the work of a lifetime of response and an institutional lifetime of response. The only way we get there is to start each day in a good way with Indigenous neighbors. So that’s really central to our understanding of forgiveness.”

When Francis apologized to a delegation of Indigenous Canadians at the Vatican in April, he also heard their personal stories of residential school abuse.

“He told the truth,” said Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, and he told the Pope that he “needed to hear words from you that would heal.”

But when the pontiff comes to Canada, Smith said, it’s important not to just read from a carefully scrutinized script: “Everybody wants to speak from their heart.”

Smith said it couldn’t stop there. The Catholic Church in Canada needs to do much more than apologize to correct mistakes in schools. “It’s almost a step in a very long journey.”


Nicole Winfield at Vatican City contributed to this report.


The Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the Associated Press’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.

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