The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.—Numbers 14:18
Beatings, whippings, solitary confinement, food deprivation, sexual abuse—all to the point of injury and often death. A 13th-century dungeon? Prisoners sentenced to endless torture? Blasphemers condemned by the Inquisition?
No. Schoolchildren in America in Catholic-run government-funded boarding schools from 1819 and into the 1960s—well within the living memory of many who endured it. The children were Native Americans and at last count—certain to rise—over 500 perished, with burial sites discovered at 53 schools.
Incredibly, the first detailed report on the schools did not appear until May 2022, over two centuries after what was called the “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative” began. The report, ordered by Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland—the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary—chronicles a story of abuse and trauma of those too young to advocate for themselves; forcibly torn from their homes, their hair cut, their language forbidden—and all of it, not to educate, but to “civilize.”
“This is the sin of racism, and it was as much a sin 150 years ago as it is today,” the Rev. Mike Carson, assistant director for the Subcommittee of Native American Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said. “The racist ideology is central to this because racial divisions do not exist in the eyes of Christ.”
Reverend Carson made his statement at a virtual gathering of dozens of members of the Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project (AHP), a group of religious orders, church officials and laypeople that addresses the role the church played in the government’s attempted cultural genocide of the nation’s indigenous people.
Of the hundreds of such schools, at least 56 were run or staffed by Catholic sisters.
Carson saw no justification in the actions of Catholic dioceses responsible for what amounted to the deprogramming of innocent children, no matter the intention. “Once we saw children being abducted from their homes, we should have said no,” he said. “Once [reports of abuse] surfaced, schools should have been closed and investigated. But they were not. Back then, as today, we see Christ as beyond cultures. So once the federal government said only English should be spoken, we should have said no.”
Now that the facts are out, Carson, who is the U.S. Bishops’ conference’s liaison to the AHP, says the church must address those facts. “The truth does not hurt anyone. We have to get the truth out there,” he said. “The avoidance of truth is very destructive to everyone, including the Catholic Church.”
AHP steering committee member, Sister Sue Torgerson, acknowledged that the role the church played in the forceful destruction of native identity through the imposition of European culture is not broadly known in the wider church. “If we can reach people who serve in parishes and dioceses, we can get some of this information out,” she said.
Reverend Carson said that the facts of that dark chapter in Catholic and American history must be disseminated if there is ever to be any healing.
“We’re doing this because we’re Christ-centered,” he said. “And that means we come to grips with the evil things we’ve done and move forward.”