Indigenous

Residential school survivor calls Pope's absence from meeting with sex abuse victims 'disrespectful'

A residential school survivor attending a Vatican summit on sexual abuse says the Pope's decision not to meet with victims Wednesday shows he isn't committed to dealing with the root causes of the systemic problems afflicting the Catholic Church.

Evelyn Korkmaz said the Pope should apologize for residential schools during a news conference in Rome

Evelyn Korkmaz attended St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in northern Ontario between 1969 and 1972. She is in Rome for the Pope's summit on church sex abuse. (Submitted by Evelyn Korkmaz)

A residential school survivor attending a Vatican summit on sexual abuse says the Pope's decision not to meet with victims Wednesday shows he isn't committed to dealing with the root causes of the systemic problems afflicting the Catholic Church.

Evelyn Korkmaz, 60, who attended St. Anne's, one of Canada's most notorious residential schools, travelled from Ottawa to Rome for the summit in hopes of meeting Pope Francis and personally asking that he apologize for the church's role in running the schools.

Korkmaz was not chosen by Vatican officials to be among the 10 survivors of abuse who met with senior clergy on Wednesday. The meeting lasted for about three hours and was described as tense, Korkmaz says.

"The Pope didn't show up. He sent bishops instead. How disrespectful," she said in a Facebook messenger exchange with CBC News after the meeting ended. "This shows where he stands concerning this issue."

Earlier in the day, Korkmaz spoke at a news conference held by her group, Ending Clergy Abuse, and again called for Pope Francis to say he's sorry for the harm residential schools inflicted on Indigenous people.

"I would like Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize to the Indigenous people of Canada," Korkmaz said. "He must apologize for us losing our culture and sexually abusing our people."

Pope Francis called for the summit to be held this week so the Catholic Church can grapple with the issue of sexual abuse. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

The House of Commons passed a motion last spring calling on the Pope to apologize.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which probed the dark, more than century-long history of the schools, also called for an apology.

But the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the Pope doesn't have plans to apologize.

The Catholic Church, through its various religious orders, ran about 72 per cent of all residential schools across Canada.

Korkmaz also called on Pope Francis to pay the $25 million the Catholic Church agreed to contribute when it signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006.

"We need this for the healing and damages that were committed by him and his church," she said.

Under the agreement, the Catholic Church was required to raise $25 million for healing and reconciliation programs. It only raised $3.7 million. Ottawa released the Catholic Church of its legal liability following a 2015 court ruling.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet hopes Pope Francis will visit Canada to meet with Indigenous people and apologize for residential schools. (CBC News)

Quebec-born Cardinal Marc Ouellet says he hopes Pope Francis will "one day come" to Canada and meet with Indigenous people who are calling for an apology.

In an interview with CBC News, Ouellet said only Pope Francis can say whether he will ever apologize to those who suffered in residential schools.

"I am sure that he has in his heart the ... suffering of these people," Ouellet said. "That would be also my hope, that one day he could come. It's up to him."

Ouellet's comments came on the eve of the summit in Rome, which was called by Pope Francis to grapple with the widespread and historical sexual abuse by priests that has been systemically covered up around the globe. It runs until Saturday.

Watch: Evelyn Korkmaz explains why she wants the Pope to apologize for abuse at residential schools in Canada.

A First Nation woman, who attended one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools, is heading to Rome this week in hopes of getting the chance to meet with Pope Francis and personally demand he apologize for the abuse suffered by Indigenous children in the Catholic Church-run institutions in Canada. 4:09

In an interview with CBC News before she left, Korkmaz said she was carrying the voice of her people to Rome. 

"I'm going to be representing the spirit of my ancestors that were abused," she said. "And all the Indigenous people of Canada that were done wrong. So, to me, it's a big burden to carry this."

She attended St. Anne's Indian Residential School from 1969 to 1972, which was in Fort Albany, near Ontario's James Bay Coast. The school was run by the Oblates and Grey Nuns Catholic orders.

In the 1990s, the Ontario Provincial Police investigated hundreds of abuse allegations from survivors of St. Anne's leading to five convictions, including against two nuns.

Korkmaz said she was gang-raped at age 10 by other students, who themselves were victims of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the priests, nuns and workers at the school.

She was treated for her injuries by the nuns, who also doubled as nurses, but nothing was done to deal with what happened and police were never called, she said.

Evelyn Korkmaz, when she was 11 years old and attending St. Anne's Indian Residential School. (Evelyn Korkmaz)

Korkmaz was initially denied compensation for the abuse she suffered at St. Anne's under the system created by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, finalized in 2006, known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). She appealed the decision and was eventually granted compensation.

"There was a point when, before all this happened, that I used to dance, skip, play hopscotch, do all the things a child is supposed to do," she said. "But they tore that away from me and I became an adult in less than 20 minutes."

'I will take it to my grave'

Korkmaz said even if she doesn't personally meet with the Pope, the journey will have been worth it. She got the chance in Rome to tell her truth on the international stage.

And it's a truth she hopes will never repeat itself.

"We must stand up, and stand up for our children, for the future generations," she said.

Because, as a survivor, Korkmaz knows the pain never goes away.

"I feel the effects on a daily basis," she said. "You can't bury it. I will take it to my grave."

About the Author

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

with files from Thomas Daigle, Reuters