It only took the Vatican 150 years, in the person of Pope Francis I, to issue an apology, albeit perfunctory, during a recent visit to Canada. His words were unaccompanied by any pledge of reparations for the Church’s gross misconduct. No surprises there. The Church has spent years denying and covering up the planet-wide sexual abuse scandals perpetrated by officials all the way from parish priests to cardinals and has often had to be dragged through the courts before reluctantly paying damages to victims.
A visit to the Vatican Library in Rome leaves the typical tourist with one overriding impression: the immense wealth the Church has amassed over two thousand years. Tens of thousands of priceless manuscripts, paintings, sculptures and assorted other objets d’art dazzle the visitor. The aggregate value of these collectibles is larger than the gross domestic product of most of the nations of the world.
Yet the Church balks at paying reparations to the families of the children that were horribly abused and sometimes murdered through neglect or more active measures at these boarding schools. All it would have to do would be to sell a tiny handful of pieces from the Vatican Library and dole out the proceeds to the grief-stricken families of the lost children. The sale items would hardly be missed among the hundreds of thousands of enormously valuable library holdings.
A similar accusation can be leveled against the U.S. government, which inspired the Canadians to follow suit. The rationale for the boarding school model was the work of Army General Richard Henry Pratt, who in 1879 summed up his ethnic cleansing of children philosophy as follows: “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In 1891, Congress made attendance at such schools compulsory for Indigenous children, and punished non-complying families by withholding food and other provisions. Children as young as four were forcibly removed thousands of miles from their homes, often never to see their families again. The government funded more than 300 off-reservation boarding schools over the next several decades.
In total, tens of thousands of Native American and First Nation children died at these schools of disease due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, sexual violence and beatings. Many are buried in unmarked graves. Many others ran away or died by suicide. Some schools offered bounties for the capture of runaways.
The schools essentially eradicated Indian culture, forbidding students from speaking their languages, forcing them to take new names, and coercing them to convert to Christianity. Tuberculosis, influenza and smallpox were rampant. Students were often required to build their classmates’ coffins.
In 2009, Congress passed a joint resolution of apology to Native Americans, but stopped short of authorizing reparations. Congress, typically fearful of its own shadow, worried that payments for the nation’s aboriginal sin would establish a dangerous precedent that could be invoked by the descendants of slavery, oft deemed America’s original sin.
Native American families should not have to wait any longer for justice to prevail.
September 30, 2022