Church Apologies: Top Leaders Apologize for Historic Sins

By The Associated Press

FILE – Pope John Paul II places a typed and signed note in a crack in the Western Wall Sunday, March 26, 2000, in Jerusalem’s Old City. He hid the prayer note in the wall asking God’s forgiveness for those who “brought your children pain”. (Gabriel Bouys/Pool Photo via AP, File)

(AP) – When Pope Francis apologizes to Aboriginal groups on Canadian soil this week he will make another effort to heal the wrongs inflicted in Church-run residential schools — and add to the Catholic Church’s growing record of atonement for past transgressions.

Like the papacy, major Protestant leaders also gradually issued institutional mea culpas for the historic wrongs of their churches. Many of the apologies presented on behalf of Christian denominations relate to serious crimes: genocide, sexual abuse, slavery, war, etc.

Although increasingly common, church apologies are a relatively modern phenomenon, said Jeremy Bergen, a church apology expert and professor of religious and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont.

“For 1,900 years the churches have not apologized for the wrong things they have done,” Bergen said.

It identifies the pivot of the important apologies to come in the aftermath of World War II, in particular a declaration by the Protestant churches of Germany that they failed to adequately oppose the Nazis. It was among the first in a series of acknowledgments that Christian institutions themselves had done wrong, Bergen said. In the 1990s, apologies from churches increased as more attention was paid to human rights after the Cold War, he said.

Pope flew to Canada on Sunday to apologize for the abuses suffered by natives in state-funded Christian boarding schools. From the 1800s to the 1970s, Indigenous children were forced to attend schools where abuse was rampant.

Apologies follow a similar Francis made in April in Rome members of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities in Canada.

The setting is important, said Fernie Marty, a member of Papaschase, a Cree Nation in Alberta. The 73-year-old is a survivor of a day school – part of a system that, like residential schools, aimed to assimilate Indigenous children.

He appreciated the pope’s apology in Rome, but “that’s where all the atrocities happened,” Marty said. It is “more meaningful to come to Canadian soil”.

Marty, an elder at Sacred Heart Church of First Peoples in Edmonton, a Catholic parish in Alberta’s capital focused on Indigenous peoples and culture, said the Pope’s visit provides “a tremendous opportunity for my own personal healing.

But George Pipestem, 79, a Montana First Nation member and survivor of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, questioned the adequacy of the papal apology, just as he questioned the apologies of Canadian prime ministers for the role of the government in schools.

He said the abusers should be the ones who apologize: “They are all gone, though. Those excuses don’t matter to me. It’s like nothing. It’s just a word.

It is not uncommon for a leader who was neither involved nor alive when a wrong was done to offer a church apology. Some have taken generations to apologize.

Graham Dodds, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal who studies political apologies, says institutional responsibility can extend beyond the present day or a person’s lifetime.

“It’s part of being a leader to accept that connection to things from the past,” he said.

Saint John Paul II took on this responsibility and left a legacy of papal apologies. None was more important than his list of mea culpas published as the Catholic Church opened its Jubilee Year 2000 and entered its third millennium.

Jean-Paul apologized for the sins of Catholics throughout the ages, including against women, Jews and other religious minorities. In his most memorable act, he slipped a prayer note into the Western Wall in Jerusalem asking for God’s forgiveness for those who “brought your children pain”.

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

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

His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, also apologized for clerical abuse, including in a 2010 letter to the Irish faithful. He said he was “truly sorry” for the injured and blamed Irish bishops, although he remained silent about the Vatican’s responsibility.

Francis went further, first apologizing for his own mistakes in defending a Chilean bishop who covered up the abuses of the country’s most notorious pedophile priest. That 2018 scandal marked a turning point in the Pope’s understanding of abuse, and he has continued to apologize for it.

Juan Carlos Cruz, who was mistreated by this priest, received both an apology from the church and a personal apology from Francis. It was as if the church had finally recognized the hurt he had suffered and he could begin to heal, Cruz said. It also motivated Cruz, now a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minorsto continue to defend the survivors.

“Pope Francis had a sincerity that 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 have received apologies from many people in the church that are as bogus as you can imagine.

Francis also apologized, in 2015 in Bolivia, for the 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 excuses attempt to justify or explain wrongs, while good excuses admit fault and convey, “That was wrong. … This will not happen again. Please forgive me,” he said.

What comes next also matters, said the Reverend Dwight McKissic Sr., senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. He is a black minister of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 to support slave-trading missionaries.

It took 150 years for SBC delegates 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 through with a greater diversity of leaders.

He remembers visiting the convention headquarters in Nashville in 2007 and being told that the best African American to work in the building was a janitor. When he returned recently, the the highest position was held by Willie McLaurinthe first black man to lead the SBC’s executive committee.

“That’s progress,” McKissic said, while cautioning that there’s still room for “a lot of improvement” such as greater diversity among leadership and seminary faculty.

This year, SBC delegates also apologized for the harm caused to survivors of church sex abuse.

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

The Right Reverend Richard Bott, who is now the moderator and spiritual leader of the church, said the institutional repentance and reparations his predecessor put in place in 1998 remain a work in progress.

“It’s not a one-day job,” Bott said. “It is the work of a life of response and of an institutional life of response. The only way to do that is to start each day off right with our Indigenous neighbours. So that’s really at the heart of our understanding of apologies.

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

“They spoke the truth,” Archbishop of Edmonton 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 carefully checked text: “Everyone wants him to speak from his heart.

Smith said it couldn’t end there. The Catholic Church in Canada will have to do more than apologize to right the wrongs in schools. “It’s pretty much one leg of a very long journey.”


Nicole Winfield of Vatican City contributed to this report.


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Jerry B. Hatch