Lack of bishops' consensus, concerns over cost behind Pope apology decision: Archbishop

A lack of consensus among Canadian bishops played a role in Pope Francis's decision to deny a request that he visit Canada and apologize to Indigenous Peoples for residential schools, according to the Archbishop of Regina.

Pope John Paul II's 2002 visit to Toronto left Canadian Catholic Church with $36M debt

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen says concern about costs and the church's relationship with the government played a role in the lack of a consensus among bishops about a potential visit and apology by Pope Francis. (CBC)

A lack of consensus among Canadian bishops played a role in Pope Francis's decision to deny a request that he visit Canada and apologize to Indigenous Peoples for residential schools, according to the Archbishop of Regina.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced in a March 27 letter that Francis could not "personally respond" to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call to action that he visit Canada and apologize.

The decision has led to an NDP-authored motion calling for the apology that will be debated in the House of Commons on Thursday. The Liberals plan to support the motion, but the Conservatives are letting MPs vote their conscience and some are expected to oppose it.

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen, who supports the call for a visit and apology, said bishops across Canada couldn't come to the consensus Francis prefers when making these types of decisions. The Pope is known to depend on the advice of bishops on these types of issues.

"In different parts of the country our relationships with Indigenous people are different and the things we hear from Indigenous people are different," said Bolen.

"I think there is a whole complex set of issues involved."

Politics played role

Bolen said part of the concern stems from the cost associated with a papal visit, and discomfort with the federal Liberal government's new requirement that groups seeking federal summer job dollars need to check a box affirming they respect reproductive rights like access to abortion.

"We feel that the government, on the attestation question, is asking us to betray our conscience, so our relationship with the government would … be one factor, among many," he said.

The Vatican is also reluctant to respond to a direct request from a state government, he said.

While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiated among Ottawa, the churches and survivors, the federal government has taken up the call for an apology and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has personally requested it of the Pope.

"That puts the church in a challenging place because the church wants to acknowledge mistakes, it wants to acknowledge past failures, but it doesn't want to be at the beck and call of a government," said Bolen.

Saint-Jean-Longueuil Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the CCCB, and Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, vice-president of the group, held a news conference in Ottawa last week defending the Pope's decision.

Gagnon said the Pope could still eventually come to Canada and be moved to offer some apologetic gesture.

Bishop 'frustrated' with decision

Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Jon Hansen, whose diocese covers the Northwest Territories as well as parts of northern Saskatchewan and western Nunavut, said he was disappointed by the CCCB leadership's handling of the apology issue.

Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Jon Hansen says he doesn't know exactly why the Pope declined to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Hansen, who was appointed bishop in December, said he hasn't been privy to the discussions around the apology, but disagrees with the outcome.

"I was feeling frustrated and disappointed by the decision," said Hansen, who also worked as a priest in Inuvik, N.W.T., and Saskatoon.

"It has been requested by that commission and we are seeing it as a necessary step toward reconciliation in Canada. That is why I believe it's important."

Joe Gunn, who worked for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1994 to 2005, said if the bishops had "put forward a strong and united invitation to the Pope" the outcome could have been different.

Gunn, who is now executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, said he believes financial concerns are playing a large role in the debate among bishops.

Pope John Paul II's visit to Toronto for World Youth Day in 2002 left the Canadian Catholic Church with a $36 million debt. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

The visit of Pope John Paul II to Toronto in 2002 for World Youth Day left the Canadian Catholic Church with about a $36 million debt, and some dioceses were forced to cut social justice programs to redirect funds to pay off the bill.

Gunn, who supports an apology, said Catholic dioceses in Quebec have been struggling financially as a result of dropping church attendance.

"The anticipation of a large outlay of money is something that would cause bishops to take a hard look at the nature of an invitation," said Gunn. 


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him