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Catholic community leaders call on Pope Francis to apologize for residential schools

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There are growing calls among Canadian Catholics for Pope Francis to come to Canada and issue an apology for the church's role in the residential school system.

More than 3,500 people have signed a petition on Change.org, calling on the church to take more accountability measures after the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the site of a former Catholic residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

The signatories want the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to invite the Pope to Canada and "make a public apology on behalf of the Church in Canada for our sins of commission and omission in the matter of Residential Schools."

"We are a group of lay people and clergy who are deeply disappointed with our official church – hurt, ashamed and saddened at the discovery of the graves of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops," the petition says.

The petition was started by Monsignor Sam Bianco, a retired priest from Toronto. Signatories include clergy, academics, university administrators and a retired senator.

"The appalling and overriding truth is that the sufferings, pain and loss far outweigh any possible good from of the Residential Schools' work to educate. The legacy is overwhelmingly negative and destructive. It must now be addressed openly, fully and without reservation."

In addition to an apology, the petitioners are calling for the church to pay the $20 million in restitution that was originally part of a legal settlement agreement with residential school survivors in 2007, and to cover the cost of reinterment of the bodies of the children in Kamloops. They're also calling for all church records relating to residential schools to be accessible to Indigenous communities.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada (ACCUC), an organization representing more than 20 Catholic post-secondary institutions, also put out a statement on Monday calling for an apology from the Pope.

"We believe that the Holy Father’s apology will be important for addressing the Church’s reprehensible involvement in the federal residential school system, as well as serving as a critical start for the process of healing the multiple wounds of our Indigenous brothers and sisters," the ACCUC said in the statement.

Between the late 1800s to 1996, approximately 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend boarding schools and were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

At least one in every 50 of these students died, according to the findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Over 60 per cent of residential schools were run by Catholic dioceses and orders across Canada. Indigenous activists and residential school survivors have long sought a formal public apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system.

On Sunday, the pontiff voiced his sorrow for the Kamloops discovery, but stopped short of giving an apology. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI also expressed his sorrow for the residential school system during a private meeting with Indigenous leaders in 2009.​

With files from CTV News’ Jeremiah Rodriguez. 

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If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here

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