'I took that to mean he was sorry for what happened.'

School survivor applauds Pope's words of contrition


Pope Benedict XVI may not have uttered the words "I'm sorry" for years of abuse suffered by aboriginal children at church-run residential schools, but to Peter Irniq, that's a distinction without a difference.

"I think the Pope used words like sorrow and regret and things like that," Irniq said. "I took that to mean he was sorry for what happened to the young boys and the young girls when they were in the hands of the Roman Catholic church."

What the Pontiff did, according to a news release from the Vatican press office, was express "his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity."

"His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope."

Irniq said an apology delivered by Bishop Reynauld Roleau in Igloolik in 1996 had already proved the church's contrition for its role in the abuse of students at the schools.

The Catholic Church ran about three-quarters of Canada's residential schools and 70 per cent of Inuit who attended residential schools went to Catholic ones.

The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches also ran residential schools for aboriginal children in Canada, and all have apologized for abuses that happened during their operation. And last June, the federal government formally apologized for its role running the schools.

Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami along with Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and David Chartrand, vice-president of the Metis National Council, had a 20-minute private audience with Benedict April 29.

It was the first ever private meeting between a delegation of aboriginal Canadians and the Pontiff.

Simon said she would have preferred to hear the Pontiff specifically apologize and speak publicly. She also would like to hear an apology specifically for Inuit, since last week's event was the result of a longstanding effort by the Assembly of First Nations.

ITK is even trying to arrange a visit to the Arctic by the Pope, although it could be years before such an event occurs, she said.

What matters for now, she said, is how individual residential school survivors feel about the Pontiff's statement.

"It's an individual process, the healing, and if people get some comfort out of [the Pope's] words I think that's the most important thing," she said.

Irniq travelled with the delegation to The Vatican, and while he did not meet the Pope, he did go to mass, for the first time in 30 years, at St. Peter's Basilica.

That service helped Irniq, who suffered abuse at the Joseph Bernier federal day school in Chesterfield Inlet as a student between 1958 and 1963, find peace with what happened to him.

"I came to the conclusion that I would forgive the church," Irniq said. "Before I die, I want[ed] to do this. I don't want to die with this feeling of not having said anything."

But Irniq does not yet know whether he will attend another mass.

"You can forgive but you cannot forget."

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