Pope Francis has issued a historic apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools that assimilated Indigenous children.
The schools, established in the 1890s under the leadership of the Roman Catholic church, were part of a Canada-wide network of residential schools set up to forcibly separate indigenous children from their families and assimilate them, according to Reuters.
A six year investigation into the system in 2015 found that it constituted “cultural genocide”.
The investigation revealed the physical abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities experienced by at least 150,000 children who attended the schools between the 1840s and the 1990s.
The report also found that 4,100 children died while attending residential schools.
The Canadian government formally apologized for the system in 2008.
On Friday April 1, Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the schools after meetings with Canadian Indigenous leaders and survivors of the residential schools who had traveled to the Vatican to press for an apology.
“For the deplorable behavior of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness from God and I would like to tell you from the bottom of my heart that I am very pained and I join my brother bishops from Canada in apologizing to you,” he said.
“Listening to your voices, I was able to enter into and be deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, particularly in the residential schools,” Francis said, according to NPR.
Indigenous leaders have welcomed the apology, saying that although it was long overdue, it was a first step.
“We feel heard and we feel listened to,” Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said. “This opens a door for us to continue on our healing journeys, and it opens a door for us to continue to fight for action.”
Francis also said he would visit Canada in July, adding that he hoped they can work together toward truth and reconciliation.