Killing The Indian

Canada's Churches Face Ruin Over Abuse At Indian Schools

Faced with a widening scandal over pedophile priests, the Catholic Church in the U.S. faces a staggering number of lawsuits that could financially ruin the church.

It's not unlike a situation in Canada that 60 Minutes II correspondent Bob Simon first reported on last year.

A century ago, the government of Canada set up a system of boarding schools to educate Indian children. Canada's biggest churches were paid to run the schools.

But the schools were really an exercise in social engineering: the goal was to eradicate Indian culture from the Canadian nation. The Canadian government said it hoped the residential schools would turn the "savage child" into a "civilized adult." Or, as one Canadian official put it: "kill the Indian in the child."

If that were the only problem with system of boarding schools that have since been closed, it would be bad enough. But the schools proved a cover for severe physical and sexual abuse.

"The people that were there were going to get the Indian out of you by hook or by crook," says Richard Redman, one of those who went to the schools. "If it meant beatin' the living hell out of you, they were gonna do it."

Redman spent eight years under the tutelage of Catholic nuns and priests at the Lebret School. "I went there for an education. Unfortunately, they had a different idea," he says.

The idea at Lebret and most of the other schools was to teach Indian kids how to become seamstresses, carpenters, laundry workers - trades they presumably could use in later life. There was not much reading, writing or arithmetic; that was for white kids.

The kids were beaten in public and everyone knew about it. But other things happened in private, behind closed doors, that did not come to light for decades.

The schools were well placed for keeping secrets. Most were in remote corners of the Canadian wilderness where it's hard to tell where the winter sky ends and the snow-covered fields begin.

Redman remembers the punishment a priest meted out for the theft of a coin. The offender's hand was burned with a cigarette lighter, in front of the others so he could serve as an example.

"That physical cruelty became the cover for sexual cruelty. And, of course, it was a terrible atmosphere in which to run any sort of an education, "says Tony Merchant, a lawyer who represents Redman and 4,000 others who attended the schools.

One of the most notorious schools was the Gordon School in Saskatchewan, run by the Anglican Church.

"I wasn't there more than six months and the sexual abuse started," says Ben Pratt. I came out of school with a grade-three education. I can't read or write.'

More than 200 of Pratt's fellow-students say they, too, were sexually abused at the Gordon School, many by William Starr, who was the school principal for more than 15 years. Starr was later convicted of sexually assaulting 10 students; he admitted to molesting dozens more.

The government began closing the schools in the 1970s and the stories that hundreds of thousands of children had been abused for 100 years started coming to the surface.

In 1996, a government commission reported that sexual abuse was "pervasive" and that the children were so poorly cared for that an "incalculable number" had died from tuberculosis and other diseases.

"The prime minister of Canada has apologized," says Merchant. "The Pope has apologized. The Archbishop of Canterbury has apologized. The head of the United Church Synod of Canada has apologized. Very legitimate claims that everybody recognizes things went horribly, horribly wrong."

Authorities prosecuted a few of the accused abusers, but most had died. The government set up a $350 million "healing fund" to help victims with counseling and treatment. Churches began outreach programs to the Indian community. And Canada's Indians - who have lived in poverty and obscurity for generations - started speaking out for themselves.

In the last few years, Indians have filed more than 7,000 lawsuits against Canada's government and its churches, seeking damages of billions of dollars.

The Canadian government has paid only a handful of those claims. Shawn Tupper, the government's point man on the suits, says there's no rush to judgement, or to payment.

"One of the critical parts of the response." he says, "is making sure we can come up with response that protect people who were abused and insure that people who may be coming forward looking for easy money don't get easy money."

The lawsuits are a big problem for Bishop Duncan Wallace, whose Anglican church ran 30 of the residential schools. He maintains that they were operated according to principles which seemed appropriate at the time but admits there was no excuse for abuse.

The bishop says the church has a moral debt to the Indians but paying that debt in cash is not so easy for his cash-strapped church. The bishop is already preparing his flock for leaner times as a result of the suits.

If courts order the churches to pay for the sins of earlier generations, the bishop says they will be, quite simply, out of business.

No one, not even the victims of the abuse, really wants the churches to disappear but it may happen.

"Well," says Redman, "they shoulda thought of that before they started beatin' the hell out of us."