In early July, Father Rhéal Forest delivered a sermon at St. Emile Catholic Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, about Canada’s residential schools, which had been sites of violence and sexual abuse toward Indigenous children for more than a century.
“Fake news,” Forest said about reports that the system inflicted psychological, physical and sexual abuse on the 150,000 children who attended the church-run boarding schools set up to assimilate them into European culture.
He asserted that Indigenous children enjoyed being at the residential schools and said that survivors of sexual abuse at the schools lied about it to receive settlement money from the Canadian government, which has paid $3 billion to 28,000 victims, according to the Canadian Broadcast Corp.
“If they wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” Forest said during a video-recorded sermon that was removed from Facebook but reposted by the CBC.
“So it’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie,” he added.
After the Archdiocese of St. Boniface became aware of the videos on Monday, it removed them from St. Emile’s Facebook page and revoked Forest’s rights to preach or teach publicly, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
In a statement shared with The Washington Post, the archdiocese on Thursday said it disavowed Forest’s comments: “We very much take to heart the pain his words have caused to numerous people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
The archdiocese did not make Forest available for comment.
The priest’s remarks come as the discovery of two unmarked grave sites near residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have roiled Canada, renewing scrutiny on a system that sought to detach Indigenous children from their homes and cultures.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described the system as “cultural genocide.”
The commission’s report also determined that the children were routinely subjected to sexual abuse. It identified more than 40 “successful convictions of former residential school staff members who sexually or physically abused students.” As of January 2015, nearly 38,000 claims arising from physical or sexual abuse had been filed with the government, according to the commission’s report.
“The door had been opened early to an appalling level of physical and sexual abuse of students, and it remained open throughout the existence of the system,” the report said.
During his July 10 sermon, Forest claimed that only a “few” children experienced sexual abuse, but not by priests or nuns, but a “layperson” and a “night watchman.”
Indigenous leader Kyle Mason told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. he was surprised that a member of the Catholic Church would be “so out of touch and so outdated” to have such “disgusting views going on within themselves.”
“I would strongly encourage [the church] to use this as a teaching moment for them to make sure that anybody — priests, nuns, staff, whatever it is, whatever their leaders are within their ranks — are well-informed on residential schools … and all the other ways that we are seeing the impact of these atrocities within our society,” he said.
Following the discovery of some 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia in May — and 751 more in Saskatchewan in June — more than a dozen Catholic and Christian churches have been burned or vandalized. As many as 15 churches have been set on fire, The Wall Street Journal reported, although in most cases police have said there is no evidence they are linked to the unmarked graves.
During a sermon on July 18, Forest said he passed a church that had been vandalized with the words “Save the children,” the CBC reported.
“As I’m passing by, thoughts of anger. If I had a shotgun at night and I’d see them, I’d go, ‘Boom!’ just to scare them and if they don’t run away, I’ll shoot them,” Forest said of the vandals, according to the CBC.
He backtracked, saying that would be “bad” and “would not help,” and then blamed the media for prompting vandals to target churches by reporting on the atrocities of residential schools.
In a 10-minute video posted on Facebook on Thursday, Albert LeGatt, the archbishop of St. Boniface, expanded on the archdiocese’s disavowal of Forest’s comments, calling them racist.
“I am not just sorry or regret or wish he hadn’t used those words,” he said. “I wish to say very, very clearly, I — and I hope more and more people — will come to that place of completely disavowing that kind of thinking.”
LeGatt also asked for forgiveness from Canada’s Indigenous community.
“Truth and reconciliation is a single thing. And so I need to come to know the truth — we need to come to know the truth,” he said. “And so the diocese [is] inviting all of the faithful to come to know more fully that truth as told by and shared by the Indigenous.”