Catholic bishops apologize for church’s role operating Indian boarding schools

— In Friday vote, church leaders cite a “history of trauma” inflicted on Native Americans, including generations of children removed from their families to be forcibly assimilated.

Clarita Vargas, 64, one of the survivors of St. Mary’s Mission, an Indian boarding school, stands in the St. Mary’s church on the Colville Reservation on Feb. 20 in Omak, Wash.

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U.S. Catholic bishops issued a formal apology Friday morning for the church’s role in inflicting a “history of trauma” on Native Americans, including at church-run Indian boarding schools where a Washington Post investigation published last month documented pervasive sexual abuse by priests.

The vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which establishes policies and norms for the church in the United States, represents the most direct expression of regret to date by church officials for past participation in a systematic effort by the U.S. government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into White society. By a 181-2 vote, the bishops approved a document, called “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry.” Three people abstained.

The document does not specifically mention sexual abuse, but says “we all must do our part to increase awareness and break the culture of silence that surrounds all types of afflictions and past mistreatment and neglect.”

“The family systems of many Indigenous people never fully recovered from these tragedies, which often led to broken homes harmed by addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment and neglect,” the document states. “The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children.”

While the 56-page document covers many aspects of the church’s relationship with Native Americans, it specifically highlights its role in the Indian boarding schools that were created in the 19th century as part of a U.S. government policy to eradicate Native American cultures.

For more than 100 years, children were removed from their families, stripped of their names, and often beaten for speaking their languages. Of more than 500 schools, 84 were operated by the Catholic Church or its religious affiliates, according to the bishops’ document.

Tens of thousands of Native American children were forced or coerced from their homes and sent to the boarding schools — the majority of them run or funded by the U.S. government — from 1819 until 1969. By 1900, 1 out of 5 Native American school-age children attended a boarding school. At least 500 children are believed to have died at the schools, according to the first major investigation into the boarding schools by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Post investigation found that at least 122 priests, sisters and brothers were assigned to 22 Catholic-run boarding schools since the 1890s who were later accused of sexually abusing Native American children under their care. Most of the documented abuse happened in the 1950s and 1960s, and involved more than 1,000 children, mostly in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska.

Vargas exits the St. Mary’s church. She was 8 when she was sent to live at St. Mary’s Mission, where she suffered years of sexual abuse.

The Friday apology follows decades of efforts by Native Americans who survived boarding schools and their descendants to seek accountability from the U.S. government, the Catholic Church, individual religious entities and the Catholic priests who they said abused them.

The Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million in 2011 to about 500 boarding school survivors in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. For four years, advocates for boarding school survivors have urged Congress to create a Truth and Healing Commission to investigate Indian boarding schools and the country’s assimilation policy. Legislation to create the commission, similar to one established more than 15 years ago in Canada, was reintroduced in the Senate last year and this year in the House, but has not reached the floor for a vote in either chamber.

In March, members of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition met at the White House with a top aide to President Biden to ask for a presidential apology for the widespread mistreatment and abuse that Native American children suffered at boarding schools. The White House has not responded to requests for comment about the potential for a presidential apology.

Pope Francis traveled to Canada in 2022 to apologize for the church’s role in what he said was that government’s “cultural destruction and forced assimilation,” but the pope has remained silent about abuses in the United States.

The bishops’ statement Friday, though, offered a blunt assessment of the legacy of abuse of Native Americans.

“In these schools, Indigenous children were forced to abandon their traditional languages, dress, and customs,” the statement says. “Boarding schools were seen as one expedient means to achieve this cultural assimilation because they separated Indigenous children from their families and Tribes and ‘Americanized’ them while they were still malleable.”

The Indian boarding school system “left a legacy of community and individual trauma that broke down family and support systems among Indigenous communities,” the document says.

“Sadly, many Indigenous Catholics have felt a sense of abandonment in their relationship with Church leaders due to a lack of understanding of their unique cultural needs,” the document states. “We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care.”

The Friday statement seeks to distance the church from what it says were “European and Eurocentric world powers” that devised “their own justifications to enslave, mistreat, and remove Indigenous peoples from their lands.”

“Let us be very clear here: The Catholic Church does not espouse these ideologies.”

The document also makes a nod to the long-standing belief that the treatment of Native Americans by the Catholic Church led to intergenerational trauma that continues today.

“Historical traumas are a significant contributor to the breakdown of family life among many Indigenous peoples,” the document states.

The document calls for more accountability of the Catholic Church and says “all members of the Church should be open to cooperating with Tribal and other government investigations into any Catholic involvement in ethnic abuse.”

The document’s preface states that this is the first time the U.S. bishops group has officially mentioned its relationship with Indigenous communities since 1977, according to the draft. Back then, the group issued a seven-page document that, for example, encouraged Catholic schools to “promote programs and activities that will enable students at all levels to appreciate American Indian history, cultures and spirituality.”

The church has addressed abuse by priests in U.S. parishes, but it has said little about the molestation of children in Indian boarding schools. And although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has grappled in recent years with the legacy of the church-run schools, it has not until now issued a formal apology.

In December, according to the Pillar, a news website that covers the Catholic Church, the conference was set to discuss the church’s role in Indian boarding schools, but in the end it fell short of addressing the issue. A document was written by the conference’s subcommittee on Native American affairs, the story said. But the group went into a private session and some bishops were worried that “passages intended to express regret and moral responsibility for that treatment of Native communities could have been interpreted to create potential legal liability for the bishops,” according to the Pillar.

When asked about this account last month, the conference’s spokeswoman, Chieko Noguchi, said “liability issues did not factor into the withdrawal of the document for a vote by the body of bishops.”

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