EDMONTON -- When Pope Francis stood overlooking St. Peter’s Square Sunday, he expressed his pain over the remains of 215 Indigenous students found at the site of a church-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

"I join with the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news," Francis said, acknowledging the “sad discovery” adds to the sorrow and suffering of the past.

Yet while he pressed religious and political authorities to shed light on the issue, his remarks fell short of the official apology Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian Indigenous leaders, and Catholics alike have long called for.


The Catholic Church administrated many of Canada's residential schools – including the one in Kamloops – as did the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches for more than 120 years.

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the state-funded schools, the majority of them run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, in a campaign to assimilate them into Canadian society. The children were often subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

The church has also refused to release many of its documents related to residential schools, which experts say could shed light on more unmarked burial sites, despite its obligation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to do so.


In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI “offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity” to those who had been affected by the abuse at residential schools while speaking to a delegation from Canada's Assembly of First Nations.

While he called the abuse “deplorable,” it was not considered an official apology.

In 2017, Trudeau personally asked Pope Francis to apologize for the institution's role in the residential school system. But the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops later said that the Pope could not personally apologize for residential schools, even though he has not shied away from recognizing injustices faced by Indigenous people around the world.

Church leaders have said it did not have a unified role in the residential school system as it has a decentralized structure, meaning decisions are made by individual dioceses or orders.

Both before and after the discovery in Kamloops, individual bishops have apologized for the role that different dioceses played in the residential school system.

After the discovery in Kamloops, Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed his "sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children" to the Canadian Press, but offered no formal apology. The Canadian Conference of Bishops declined to comment.


Papal apologies usually happen in person in countries where the abuse took place, which means Pope Francis would, in theory, have to travel to Canada to officially apologize.

In 2018, Pope Francis issued a sweeping apology in Ireland to the children who were forcibly taken at birth from their mothers, and the women who had been forced to live in workhouses for “fallen women.”

And, in 2015, the Pope apologized for the Catholic Church's role in the oppression of Latin America during the colonial era.

Pope Francis has also issued apologies over the church’s long-investigated sex-abuse scandal.

- With files from The Canadian Press


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.