OTTAWA: Pope Francis has declined to apologize for the abuse of indigenous Canadians at church-run boarding schools, drawing a polite rebuke Wednesday from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In an open letter, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote: "After carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, (the Pope) felt that he could not personally respond."
At the same time, however, the pontiff encouraged bishops to engage "in an intensive pastoral work of reconciliation, healing and solidarity" and to work collaboratively to improve the lives of indigenous peoples.
"I'm disappointed with the Catholic Church's decision not to apologize for their role in residential schools," Trudeau told reporters.
His minister of Crown-indigenous relations, Carolyn Bennett, went further, saying: "Sorrow is not enough."
"One has to take responsibility for the harm that was done, not only to the children that were taken but for the families left behind and what happened to them," she said, vowing to continue to pressure the Vatican to change tack.
A Canadian truth and reconciliation commission urged an apology from the Catholic Church in its extensive list of recommendations in a 2015 report.
The report collated evidence over six years from some 7,000 former students in Canada.
"We ask the Pope to present, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, an apology to the survivors, their families and the communities concerned for the spriritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of indigenous children at the residential schools," it said.
Trudeau had sought an apology for the abuses when he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2017.
Some 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis youngsters were forcibly enrolled into 139 residential schools set up to assimilate native people, many of which were operated by church groups on behalf of the Canadian government.
Students were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers who stripped them of their culture and language. Today they blame their experience for a high incidence of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as high suicide rates, in their communities.
The first of the schools opened in 1874 and the last one closed in 1996.
At least 3,200 students never returned home.
Trudeau, having already offered his own apology to survivors, noted after the 2015 report that Pope Francis had previously offered similar apologies, for example over the treatment of indigenous communities during the colonial era in South America.
Francis's predecessor pope Benedict XVI in 2009 expressed "sorrow" for the abuses in Canada.