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Church Apologies: Senior Leaders Express Remorse for Historical Sins

Pope Francis will make another attempt to repair the harms caused at church-run residential schools when he apologizes to Indigenous communities on Canadian land this week. He will also add to the Catholic Church’s expanding list of atonements for past mistakes.

Similar to the papacy, prominent Protestant leaders have gradually apologized on behalf of their churches for historical wrongs. Numerous Christian groups have issued regrets for serious transgressions like genocide, sex abuse, slavery, war, and other atrocities.

The ecclesial apology is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Jeremy Bergen, a professor of religious and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and an authority on church apologies.

For 1,900 years, churches didn’t apologize for the bad things that they did, Bergen said.

He attributes the change to considerable regrets made after World War II, particularly the admission by German Protestant churches that they had not done enough to combat the Nazis. According to Bergen, it was one of several early admissions that Christian institutions had also broken the law. As attention to human rights expanded after the Cold War, he claimed, church apologies rose in the 1990s.

On Sunday, the pope took a plane to Canada to express his regret for the mistreatment of Native Americans at state-funded residential Christian schools in that nation. Native children were compelled to attend schools where maltreatment was common from the 1800s through the 1970s.

Francis previously offered a similar apology to members of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis groups in April in Rome.

According to Fernie Marty of the Papaschase Cree people in Alberta, the environment is important. The 73-year-old is a survivor of a day school, a system designed to assimilate Indigenous children, much like residential schools.

Although Marty acknowledged the pope’s apology in Rome, he added, “here is where all the atrocities happened.” It has more significance now that it is on Canadian soil.

The pope’s visit, according to Marty, an elder of Edmonton’s Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic congregation dedicated to Indigenous people and culture, presents “a tremendous opportunity for my own personal healing.”

The relevance of a papal apology was questioned by 79-year-old Ermineskin Indian Residential School victim George Pipestem of the Montana First Nation, just as it was by Canadian prime ministers who apologized for their country’s involvement in the schools.

He believed that the abusers need to offer their regrets:

They’re all gone, though. This apologizing, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s like nothing. It’s only a word.

It is not uncommon for a church to apologize through a leader who was not there or involved when the wrong was done. Some people didn’t apologize for decades.

Political apologies are a topic of research for Graham Dodds, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal. He claims institutional accountability can go beyond the present and the lifespan of any one person.

It’s part of being a leader to accept that connection with things past, he said.

St. John Paul II embraced that responsibility and left a legacy of papal apologies. None were more significant than his list of mea culpas issued as the Catholic Church opened its 2000 Jubilee and entered its third millennium.

John Paul apologized for Catholics’ sins through the ages, including against women, Jews and other religious minorities. In his most memorable act, he tucked a prayer note into the Western Wall in Jerusalem asking God’s forgiveness for those who “have caused these children of yours to suffer.”

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

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

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, also apologized for clerical abuse, most significantly in a 2010 letter to Irish faithful. He said he was “truly sorry” for the hurt and blamed Irish bishops, though he was silent on Vatican responsibility.

Francis has gone further, first apologizing for his own errors 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 the pope’s understanding of abuse, and he continued to apologize for it.

Juan Carlos Cruz, who was abused by that priest, received both a church apology and a personal one from Francis. It felt like finally the church recognized the harm he suffered, and he could start healing, Cruz said. It also motivated Cruz, now a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to continue advocating for survivors.

Pope Francis had a sincerity that it 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 sincerity, Cruz said. Trust me. I’ve received apologies from many people in the church that are as fake as you can imagine.

Francis has also apologized, in 2015 in Bolivia, for wrongs committed by the church against Indigenous peoples during the conquest of the Americas.

Timing, word choice and contrition are important elements for an apology to be effective, Dodds said. Bad apologies try to justify or explain away wrongs, while good ones admit fault and convey, “It was wrong. … It won’t happen again. Please, forgive me,'” he said.

What comes next also matters, said the Rev. Dwight McKissic Sr., senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. He is a Black minister in the predominately white Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 in support of slaveholding missionaries.

It took SBC delegates 150 years to repudiate slavery and apologize for racism, in 1995. It was overdue and the right thing to do, McKissic said, but he wanted to see if the SBC would follow up with more leadership diversity.

He recalled visiting convention headquarters in Nashville in 2007 and being told the top African American working in the building was a custodian. When he returned recently, the top post was held by Willie McLaurin, the first Black man to head the SBC’s Executive Committee.

That’s progress, McKissic said, while cautioning that there is still room for a lot of improvements such as more diversity among leadership and seminary professors.

This year SBC delegates also apologized for harm caused to church sexual abuse survivors.

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

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

This is not work that’s done in a day, Bott said. This is the work of a lifetime of response and an institutional lifetime of response. The only way we will get there is to begin each day in a good way with Indigenous neighbors. So that’s really central to our understanding of apology.

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

They spoke truth, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said, and they told the pope they needed to hear words from you that will heal.

But when the pontiff comes to Canada, Smith said, it’s important that he doesn’t just read from a carefully vetted script:

Everybody wants him to speak from his heart.

Smith said it can’t stop there. The Catholic Church in Canada will have to do much more than apologize to heal the wrongs at the schools.

This is about one step in a very long journey.

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