“Trust is earned, not granted”
How can the Catholic Church ever regain trust after the clergy abuse scandals and the discovery of undocumented gravesites at former indigenous residential schools? An interview with Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Saskatoon diocese
By Susanne Janssen and Maureen Boyd
You wrote a letter on the occasion of the Indigenous Peoples Day in June, apologizing for the Church’s participation in residential schools and launching a Call to Action for reconciliation. How was the feedback from parishes as well as First Nations people?
The feedback was quite strong. The residential school legacy, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the calls to action and the further discoveries of the unmarked graves — while not new for many Canadians — are new to some.
I also wrote a letter to the diocese on the larger issue of how the Catholic diocese system related to the schools, and later contributed to a settlement process. In that message, I outlined three points for our ongoing work.
Number one is the development of ongoing education strategies, in collaboration with indigenous spiritual leaders and survivors, to ensure that our Catholic congregations learn more about the Church’s role in the residential school legacy. In that way, non-indigenous clergy and laity have more support and background for pastoral work with indigenous people.
Number two is the establishment of funding for healing and reconciliation projects, education and relationship building. The third point is the repudiation and clarification of concepts used to justify European sovereignty over indigenous peoples.
These are already good steps, and we cannot judge the past with the knowledge that we have now. However, was there always transparency about missing First Nations children?
Transparency is a term that we are now using more than ever. Many decades ago, it was not a common concept in our culture, our society, and our Church, but I think we have come to appreciate it.
However, we need to weigh that necessity against how individual people who have been impacted by serious misconduct or other types of trauma would react. One needs to navigate that very carefully, because survivors of serious misconduct and trauma have different perspectives and needs. And if you assume that transparency means communicating absolutely everything, no matter what, you will re-traumatize some people who were originally affected.
We should hold the bar absolutely high, and that should guide our institution and our administration, as well as our pastoral work. Are there things that we could have done differently, years ago? Absolutely.
One of the big questions that many Catholics have is why were we involved in the residential school situation in the first place?
I don’t want to be simplistic with my response, but may I give you a very brief summary from over 100 years ago, when the Indian residential school issue was announced by the federal government. It seemed to be a way to help indigenous people integrate into a new reality and culture. These institutional schools were founded in order to offer young people education and socialization.
However, in Europe, where the school systems originated, you really weren’t pulling children out of their culture. The next issue was the prevailing attitude to indigenous culture, an attitude of devaluation.
So why was the Catholic Church involved in the residential school system?
I think the number one reason was the existing cultural approach of both government and church (plus the larger society) that this was a direction that the country should take. And now we know that we should not have moved in that direction.
And then the number two reason: there weren’t many organizations in the remote areas of Canada that were in a position to run the schools for the government — the only practical alternatives were the churches.
Today I think that we would act very differently. Actually, we would not act like this at all!
How is the relationship now with the First Nations peoples?
We still have a long way to go. One of the things we’re doing now is to bring indigenous and non-indigenous participants together to talk about pastoral ministry. We are looking at the TRC Calls to Action and church documents that could help us navigate this. Inculturation is not a new issue for the Church, as there are discussions going on in Africa and South America as well, but we are all still trying to steer the course to reconciliation.
I’m not competent to evaluate indigenous practices. But I can create an attitude of respect and receptivity, and then indigenous Catholics will advise us of the right ways and the wrong ways for us to interact with one another.
The following is an example from the northern areas of Déline, which is on Great Bear Lake. The Sahtu Dene people would basically say to me, “Bishop, our language is very important, and we’d love to hear our language spoken at church. You as a pastor and as a bishop can help us and work with us to celebrate the Eucharist in our language.
“However, when it comes to our Feeding the Fire Ceremony, which actually is a way of honoring the ancestors in a very sacred way, we celebrate that separately from mass; it’s a different spiritual practice. We are honored by you participating in it, but our indigenous leadership will oversee and run that.”
What I have also seen is that different indigenous groups may have a different approach to that issue. For instance, in the southern part of my diocese in the Fort Smith area, they are more open to experimentation with regard to integrating spiritual practices. What is required, therefore, is patient walking and discerning with each particular indigenous community.
You previously mentioned the abuse cases, the second scandal that is rocking the Church. Do you see that despite all the efforts, people are losing their faith and are leaving the Church? Are there also positive factors that we learn from this situation?
There are negative and positive. Of course, people are leaving the Church because of the clergy abuse. We need proper transparency. We need to name it for what it is. And then we need to learn from it so that, as we go forward, it doesn’t happen again and that we ensure healthy, safe environments. There will be pain in the process, because it’s going to be a confrontation with the truth of human failure within the Church.
We need first to have an awareness of these issues and well-trained people who will operate alongside us, and in some cases independent of us, to help our diocesan or church organizations to study the issues. We have to be very clear about the historical problems, and to make clear recommendations that affect everything from how we utilize intake reports to how we create a safeguarding culture and codes of conduct.
I think we should distinguish between two attitudes regarding our past: shame and guilt. Shame makes you feel so bad as an individual or an institution that you lose your ability to meaningfully contribute to the organization and culture. Guilt, instead, is a good thing. You realize what was wrong and try to learn from it, to act differently… and that can lead us to reconciliation.
I know that’s a word today that some people are tiring of, so maybe we should use rehabilitation instead: new awareness and ways in which the community becomes a safer community.
I know that there are many out there who will hear all this, and they’ll say, “Well, the majority of sisters and priests were good; they didn’t commit abuse.” However, we all know that one situation can be very damning amongst 1000 good examples, so let’s not just jump to the 1000 good examples; let’s learn from that one bad example that can be so devastating so that it does not happen again.
You described it very well. Sometimes there are two extreme ways to react: to deny that there is a problem or to dwell in shame and say that we failed completely. Today, not only the Church, but also politicians, governments, institutions or even scientists are not trusted anymore. What can be done to regain trust?
Nothing in my mind has brought these two extremes to the forefront more than the Covid-19 pandemic, which we are still dealing with. The distrust of institutions has continued to be manifested by even a distrust of the medical profession. As a bishop, I want to support science; faith and science are actually complimentary and are not antagonistic at all. Faith infuses reason, and reason is a gift from God.
I’m a little concerned about the attitude that “institutions can’t be trusted at all” and that the emphasis should be on individual rights and freedoms. I don’t think that approach will solve anything. Instead, we all must have a commitment to the common good, and a trust that people want the common good. And if all we’re doing is competing for power and influence to get our way, we will not be able to deal with the urgent issues that our world is facing today.
So how can the Church as an institution regain trust?
I think the institution needs to reflect the Gospel. That might sound simplistic, but the Church does not exist for its own sake … the structure is motivated and infilled by a spirit of mission. Otherwise, you just have a skeleton that will break apart. The heart and the soul of the structure is the Gospel, the mission of Jesus Christ.
Pope Paul VI wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi, a document which followed the Second Vatican Council, that the most important thing that the Church does is proclaim Christ, proclaim the good news. The Gospel needs to motivate and guide us as we relate with the issues of the world.
I am not sure that the object should merely be a case of gaining trust. It should rather be doing the good that should be done, and to the extent that there is integrity between the good news of Jesus Christ and the institution that proclaims this … I think trust will be gained.
I also guarantee that we will work on this until the end of this age. I think trust is earned, not granted, especially these days.
So how can we be united and yet also honor the diversity of gifts and talents and cultures and personalities within the Church? One of the most practical frameworks comes out of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: worshiping together, breaking bread and celebrating the Eucharist; taking care of the poor and the needy; being a true integral Christian community; and serving one another. These features of the early Church community continue to be major facets of the way in which the Church is called to serve its people and the world today.
And so, this would be a good lens through which to look at how we can build trust — that the Church is consistent with what she says and what she does.
And how could we help Catholics who are in denial about what has happened in the residential schools or about the dimension of the abuse of minors?
Some people have difficulty being part of a Church that could do wrong. I find it important to make a distinction: the Church is divine and human. The Church established by Christ also deals with its human sinfulness, as the world does, but that’s why God came into our human reality — to bring a way of redemption and healing. The theological way to talk about this concerns the Kingdom of God “already and not yet.” The Kingdom of God is manifest among us in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, but we’re not in Heaven yet. There is still ‘work’ for the Gospel to do in the world… and in the Church.
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