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The largest group of Catholic leaders in the United States today released a guiding document to “promote reconciliation and healing” for its religious leaders serving Indigenous communities that academics and Native leaders say falls short of owning up to the role it played in Indian boarding schools.

The 56-page document, Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry, aims “to promote reconciliation and healing” and “serve as the renewed welcome for Indigenous Catholics in the life of the Church.”

The framework was developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church/Subcommittee on Native American Affairs through listening sessions with Native Catholic leaders in 2019. More than 340 parishes in the country serve predominantly Native American congregations, according to USCCB. 

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The framework was approved by the full body of the USCCB at its general assembly on June 14 in Louisville, Kentucky. 

The last time the bishops formally addressed Catholic Native Peoples was with a seven-page statement in 1977. Absent from that initial “reflection of the Catholic Church in the United States with the American Indian peoples” was any mention of the history of—or the Church’s role in— epidemics, land dispossession, or Indian boarding schools. 

In the last 50 years, the new pastoral framework notes, “Catholic Native ministries and populations have experienced fundamental changes.” The USCCB says it recognized a need for an updated pastoral framework to address the “current realities and pastoral challenges” among Indigenous Catholics, including a sense of abandonment by the church, and historical trauma born from Indian boarding schools and the breakup of family systems. 

The new document touches on a history of trauma for Native communities throughout the United States and acknowledges the 150-legacy of Indian boarding schools, but without explaining the Catholic Church’s role in such trauma.  

“We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care,” the document says in its introduction.

Later: “Among the most significant sources of trauma are epidemics, national policies, and Native boarding schools, which stand out because of their profound effect on family life. The family systems of many Indigenous Peoples never fully recovered from these tragedies, which often led to broken homes harmed by addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment, and neglect. The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children.”

From 1819 and 1969, U.S. federal policy supported the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes and communities to assimilate them into the dominant white culture by sending them to Indian boarding schools. According to a federal investigative report published in May 2022, the government operated or supported at least 408 boarding schools across 37 states. About half of the boarding schools were staffed or paid for by a religious institution.  

The document lacks sufficient links between the repercussions of historical trauma and the actions, leadership, and accountability of the Catholic church, said Sam Torres, Deputy Chief Executive Office of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

“Notably absent is any mention of the sexual and spiritual abuse inflicted on Native children by operators of Catholic boarding schools,” Torres told Native News Online. “Instead, the blame for intergenerational trauma is primarily placed on the US government and Eurocentric world powers.”

The 2022 federal investigation into the legacy of Indian boarding schools detailed “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; disease; malnourishment; overcrowding; and lack of health care in Indian boarding schools,” and found that at least 500 Native children had died at boarding schools. The report’s author, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community), estimates that number will rise to the “tens of thousands'' as the investigation continues.

Since the turn of the century, hundreds of childhood survivors of abuse at Indian boarding schools have filed lawsuits, seeking retribution for the sexual and physical abuse they endured at the hands of priests, nuns, and clergy entrusted with their care.

Last year, an interactive map project found that nearly half of all Jesuit priests and brothers credibly accused of sexual abuse against children or vulnerable adults in a 10-state region in the western United States over the past 70 years worked in Indian Country.

Yet despite the Catholic Church settling many lawsuits with boarding school survivors who alleged sexual abuse—even leading to a 2017 bankruptcy in the Jesuit West province after it paid out $200 million in settlement claims to Indigenous survivors of sexual abuse— no mention of clergy abuse was made in the guiding document.

Katie Holscher, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of New Mexico, who co-created the interactive map of credibly accused Jesuit priests, said that the language of the new pastoral framework was weaker than Pope Francis’ apology to Indigenous communities in 2022. 

“If the USCCB wants to act in the spirit of Pope Francis’ apology, they need to be more direct about what they're apologizing for in terms of the historical treatment by the Catholic Catholic Church of Native people,” she said. “They want to jump to healing and reconciliation without doing much truth telling.”

Cecilia Fire Thunder, executive director of truth and healing at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, told Native News Online that the USCCB’s document was an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Red Cloud Indian School has operated under the Jesuits for 136 years, beginning in 1888.

“It's an acknowledgement that [the church] participated in government policy to stop the language from being spoken,” said Fire Thunder, who defines herself as a recovered Catholic, a pipe carrier, and a former student at Red Cloud Indian School as a child. “We're asking that every Indian reservation in America that had a Catholic presence, whether it be a school or a church, be given the resources to build back culture and language revitalization.”

The new pastoral framework also disavows the doctrine of discovery, a legal concept created in a 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that justified the forceful seizing of Native land by European colonizers under the guise that colonizers “discovered” the land. In March 2023, the Vatican formally repudiated the church decree. 

“Let us be very clear here: the Catholic Church does not espouse these ideologies,” the USCCB framework document says.

USCCB makes four recommendations to U.S. bishops, including: transparency in making available Church records “about the boarding schools, graves of Indigenous Americans, and other issues related to the treatment of Indigenous Americans by members of the Church”; relationship building, and developing and process to conduct listening sessions with Indigenous communities locally and nationally; and accountability.

“All members of the Church should be open to cooperating with Tribal and other government investigations into any Catholic involvement in ethnic abuse,” the document reads. “These investigations include, but are not limited to, conduct at Native boarding schools.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.