Catholic church should be thanked for the ‘good done’ at residential schools, priest says

A Mississauga priest is under fire for saying the Roman Catholic church should be thanked for the “good done” in residential schools.

During his sermon at the Merciful Redeemer Parish last Sunday, Pastor Owen Keenan referenced the Kamloops, B.C. residential school where the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported it had discovered the preliminary remains of more than 200 children in unmarked graves in May.

“Two thirds of the country is blaming the church, which we love, for the tragedies that occurred there,” he said on a video originally posted to the church’s YouTube page but since deleted. Clips of his sermon continue to circulate on social media.

“I presume the same number would thank the church for the good done in those schools, but of course, that question was never asked and we are not allowed to even say that good was done there. I await to see what comes to my inbox.” 

‘Extremely harmful to reconciliation’

A clip of the Keenan’s comments sparked outrage on social media, with one person tweeting that the priest’s comments were “really disgusting” and that “the Church is not the victim.” 

Dr. Suzanne Shoush, who is Indigenous, works for the Catholic-run health network Unity Health Toronto. She is demanding the Pope apologize for the church’s role in residential schools. She said comments like those made by Keenan are damaging to reconciliation and exemplify why Catholic leaders need to intervene. 

“This is part of the reason why we keep pushing to have a formal asking of forgiveness to Indigenous people in Canada from the Pope himself,” she said. 

“It’s really critical that it comes from the leadership so that we stop having these incredibly ignorant and harmful comments coming from across the church. I think that what we’re seeing is extremely harmful to reconciliation.”

An undated photo of Kamloops residential school students and a priest. (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)

Keenan also said in his sermon that while the church should apologize for its participation in the “ill-devised government project,” it should also wait to find out who was buried at the Kamloops site and why before “rendering ultimate judgment.” 

Residential school survivors have shared horrific accounts of abuse, starvation and neglect, and difficulties getting  documents from the Catholic church, which ran the majority of  the schools. The final 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins by stating that what took place at residential schools “can be best described as ‘cultural genocide.'” 

“The church actively sought to exercise exclusive control over the welfare of these children and therefore are exclusively responsible for the conditions which these children lived in,” Shoush said.

In a statement to CBC News Wednesday, Keenan defended his comments, saying that he was trying to help his congregation struggling with negative news about the church. 

“I am deeply sorry, embarrassed, ashamed and shocked at the revelations of abuse, destruction and harm done in residential schools across this country,” he said in the statement. “I in no way condone the system …  As a Catholic and a priest, I wish I could say ‘I’m sorry’ to everyone who suffered harm.”

The Archdiocese of Toronto said in a statement it’s been in contact with Keenan “to convey the deep pain and anger” some felt. He has “pledged to fully educate himself” about the history of residential schools. 

“We apologize to anyone offended by his remarks,” the archdiocese said. 

Pastor criticizes Pride flags at schools

In the same sermon, Keenan criticized Catholic schools for flying Pride flags this month, saying the church had hoped they’d show “courage” by displaying a cross or sacred heart instead. He described the Pride flag as “the standard of contemporary sexual licence” that’s replacing Catholic symbols.

Keenan did not respond to questions from CBC News about his comments toward the LGTBQ community. 

Keith Baybayon says schools help make LGBTQ students feel more included and safe by flying the Pride flag. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

LGBTQ activist Keith Baybayon, who is also a student trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said members of the Catholic church have ramped up these kinds of comments as more Ontario school boards agree to fly Pride flags every June. The flag holds a special meaning of inclusion for the LGBTQ community that the cross doesn’t, he said.

“Flying the Pride flag can really express solidarity that the school boards have with their LGTBQ students and staff, ensuring that they belong, their voices are heard,” Baybayon said. 

“We’re not taking away the cross. We’re not taking away the sacred heart. They’re all going up there to ensure that every single person is represented in our board.” 

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