US Catholic Bishops formally apologizes for ‘trauma’ inflicted on Native American communities

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a formal apology Friday to Indigenous people for the mistreatment and trauma inflicted by the Catholic Church.

The apology is part of a document approved by US Catholic bishops by a vote during its annual spring meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

The document titled “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry,” includes the apology, discusses the church’s role in the boarding schools for Native American that forced assimilation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and sets a series of new policies for ministering to Indigenous Catholics.

The vote passed 181-2 with three abstentions.

“Today, many North American Indigenous Catholics trace their faith to the decision of their ancestors to embrace Catholicism hundreds of years ago. 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.”

Native Americans comprise approximately 3.5% of Catholics in the United States, according to the UCCB. In the document, the bishops described how Native Americans were forced to assimilate to White culture by the church.

“In these schools, Indigenous children were forced to abandon their traditional languages, dress, and customs,” the bishops said in the document.

“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 document adds.

The guidelines issued Friday call on Catholic bishops to promote and expand healing and reconciliation with Native American communities, set up listening sessions and provide training for “clergy, religious, and lay leaders to better minister to the pastoral needs of Indigenous Peoples,” according to the document.

“We must go beyond an apology to take concrete actions, if we are to restore trust within these communities and demonstrate our true willingness to be transparent, present, and accountable to them,” the document states.

Most Rev. Chad Zielinski, chairman of the conference’s subcommittee on Native American affairs, said during the first day of the meeting on Thursday that the framework has been requested for a long time. Its goal is to help bishops refocus and ‘reinvigorate’ the ministry, he said.

“This pastoral framework has been anticipated by Catholic indigenous communities in the US, who have long requested renewed pastoral attention and support from the bishops for their efforts on evangelization, reconciliation and healing, education and addressing matters of justice and social concerns in native communities,” Zielinski said.

For years, advocates and Indigenous leaders have worked to raise awareness about harm inflicted on Indigenous children in boarding schools in the US and Canada and the subsequent generational trauma.

Hundreds of those schools were run or directly supported by the federal government to assimilate children into White society, but many were run by religious groups and churches after Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act in 1819.

The legislation provided religious organizations with the resources to run more than a hundred schools for Native American children. Many operated like military training camps where children were subject to abuse, neglect and corporal punishment.

In 2022, Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of Canada’s Indigenous people, following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of former boarding schools and a years-long initiative by the federal government to investigate and create a historical record of the schools. Indigenous leaders in the US continue calling for a similar apology from the Pope.

In the US, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launched an initiative to investigate the boarding schools that released initial findings in 2022, showing that 19 boarding schools accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children.

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