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US Catholic bishops apologize to Native Americans for abuses, promise new outreach

By Thomson Reuters Jun 14, 2024 | 3:14 PM

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – U.S. Catholic bishops offered an apology to Native Americans on Friday for the church’s role in inflicting trauma on their communities and adopted new guidelines for ministering to indigenous Catholics.

The new policies, approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, call on church leaders to set up listening sessions with local Native leaders, incorporate tribal customs into sacred rites and improve access to Catholic universities and other educational opportunities for Native Americans, among other directives.

The document chronicled some of the abuses that Native Americans suffered at the hands of the church, including its operation of more than 80 government-sponsored boarding schools that were part of a decades-long forced assimilation program.

The schools were created by the federal government in the 19th century and lasted for 150 years, during which Native children were removed from their homes, forbidden to speak their own languages and given new English names.

A government investigation into the system found widespread physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as hundreds of deaths.

“The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children,” the document said, saying “these tragedies” led to addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment and neglect that harmed families.

Elsewhere, the bishops said, “We apologize” for the wrongs.

The guidelines call on church members to “be open to cooperating with Tribal and other government investigations into any Catholic involvement in ethnic abuse,” including boarding schools.

Many of the new policies are aimed at addressing the chasm that some Native Americans believe separates their tribal backgrounds and their Catholic identities, the document said.

“For Native Catholics who feel this tension, we assure you, as the Catholic bishops of the United States, that you do not have to be one or the other,” the document said. “You are both. Your cultural embodiment of the faith is a gift to the Church.”

More than 340 U.S. parishes out of more than 16,000 serve predominantly Native American congregations, and approximately 20% of all Native Americans consider themselves Catholics, according to the bishops conference.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)