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ANALYSIS - Children’s remains at Catholic school site and Islamophobic attack in Canada

08:37 15 June 2021 Author :  

Canada, regarded as one of the most livable countries with a strong emphasis on multicultural policies and even a ministry of immigration, is rapidly becoming a place with a growing number of anti-Islamic attacks, doing great damage to its image

By: Prof. Ozcan Hidir*

ISTANBUL (AA) - The discovery of the remains of 215 children in the schoolyard of the Catholic Kamloops Indian Residential School, which operated until 1969 in the Canadian province of British Columbia, sparked outrage all over the world. Following this incident, a search was launched around all church-run boarding schools in Canada. Ground radar systems are scouring cemeteries and schoolyards of the 139 church-run boarding schools for unregistered graves of children. There are also 821 undocumented child deaths in church-run boarding schools in Alberta, according to reports.

In this context, it should be noted that this boarding school, which was one of the 139 institutions established in Canada towards the end of the 19th century, was founded in 1890 by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Canadian government in order to forcibly ensure the integration of native children with European immigrant children, then came under the control of the central government in 1969, and provided dormitory services to students in the region until it was closed in 1978. In this regard, 150,000 indigenous children in Canada, starting in 1874, were forcibly deprived of their family culture and placed in churchhouses in order to be integrated (actually assimilated) into the white culture. Many of these children were reportedly subjected to physical and sexual abuse, raped, and kept malnourished; while some of them even lost their lives due to the medical experiments conducted. Almost all of the 139 boarding schools across the country were run by the Catholic Church on behalf of the government. It is also reported that it is very difficult to exactly determine how many children attended these schools and how many of them lost their lives in these ways.

In addition, according to the information we have, between 1936 and 1944, Canada destroyed (or had destroyed) a large number of documents; the destroyed documents included information on more than 200,000 native families and were related to the church-run boarding schools, which represent one of the darkest periods of the country’s history. Moreover, the most important records on these children are held in the national archives of the Vatican and Canada, but the Vatican seems to have rejected the calls for the documents to be released.

It should also be noted that a group of lawyers in Canada has brought the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the request that the Canadian government and the Vatican be investigated for committing crimes against humanity.

The Vatican/Pope Francis has yet to apologize

The Pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, was the figure whose reaction to the incident was most anticipated and from whom an apology was expected. In fact, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded that the schools were under the supervision of the church and said that the Vatican should accept responsibility for the role it played in the running of the schools and apologize, a statement he repeated two weeks ago. Furthermore, after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (which was established in 2010 and completed its work in 2015) published a 4,000-page report on the country's largest child abuse episode, Trudeau asked Pope Francis to apologize in the same year, and repeated his request during his visit to the Vatican in 2017, but he did not receive an answer from the Pope. Responding to Trudeau’s request in 2018, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that the Pope could not personally apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in how these boarding schools were run. On the other hand, the Canadian government apologized to the survivors of these schools in 2008, and a 2015 report identified the murdered children as victims of “cultural genocide”. Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller previously stated that the Pope should apologize for what happened in the church-run boarding schools, saying, “I think it’s a shame that they haven’t done it yet, that it hasn’t been done so far.”

After these statements were made, Pope Francis remained silent for a long time; however, eventually, following a traditional Sunday prayer in the Vatican, he only said, without apologizing, that he was following the situation in pain and praying for the children who had died. The Pope being a Jesuit himself, that the sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents emerging in boarding schools that mainly belong to the Jesuits, especially in Ireland and Germany, as well as the fact that the Vatican has been ordered to pay compensation as a result of work done by investigation commissions must have also influenced the Pope’s reluctance to offer an apology. As we will discuss below, the case of sexual abuse and the discovery of the children’s remains are not novel situations at all.

As can be remembered, before Pope Francis’ first visit to Ireland in August 2018, 39 years after the previous one by a Pope, the sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents against children in Catholic churches and boarding schools had been discussed for some time, and the Pope was asked to resign. According to reports, Pope Francis had been aware of the child abuse incidents since 2013. Pope Francis has promised at every opportunity since assuming the Papacy that sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents in Catholic churches would be treated with “zero tolerance”, and that such incidents would never happen again; however, he did not, or has not been able to, keep his promises or take the necessary steps to reform a structure that has allowed for such incidents. This situation also gives rise to comments that the Pope is not “powerful” enough in the Vatican, that he is protecting the Jesuits who played a key role in the sexual harassment incidents because the Pope himself is a Jesuit.

Sexual harassment - pedophilia incidents that led to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation

The issue of sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents in church-run boarding schools, as well as the discovery of children's remains, which has resurfaced in the wake of the Canada episode, has been debated for a long time. In fact, confessions have been made on this issue, and heavy accusations were leveled at Benedict XVI, the previous Pope. Many theories have been advanced as to why Pope Benedict XVI abruptly resigned, as those who have followed the matter will know, since the day he announced, quite unusually, that he would step down since in the institution of papacy there is no such thing as relinquishing the duty or resigning. In this regard, it was also written at the time that charges that Pope Benedict XVI was covering up sexual harassment and pedophilia incidents at the time sparked the process of him becoming the first “retired” pope in Catholic history. It was even claimed that Benedict XVI had found out about an organized “homosexual” structure among some of his priests and cardinals. In fact, according to the “Vati-Leaks” documents, the Pope allegedly instructed three cardinals in the Vatican to conduct an investigation into this, and these cardinals then submitted their 300-page secret findings to him.

The scope of the sexual harassment scandal left the Vatican and the Pope at the time, Benedict XVI, in a difficult situation, because the issue had in some ways stretched to the Pope himself. In fact, according to a Der Spiegel article referring to a former graduate of the thousand-year-old boys' boarding school that his older brother ran for 30 years, there were harassment incidents at the school prior to 1964-1994, when the Pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger was the director, and Georg Ratzinger also admitted that such incidents continued until the end of the 1970s. It is difficult to believe that the Pope was unaware of the incidents at his brother's school. Furthermore, despite identical incidents occurring in Munich, while he served as Archbishop between 1977 and 1982, he did not take any action.

Pope Benedict XVI did not (or was unable to) take any serious action in response to the allegations that surfaced in many countries at the time, particularly Germany, Ireland, Austria, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States, and his efforts were limited to the establishment of “investigation commissions” in the relevant countries and the payment of compensation to the victims. Stepping down from his position was the most important step that Benedict XVI took in this regard as there could not be a “retired Pope”. In this regard, it is worth noting that Benedict XVI, who is currently living out his retirement in a Vatican monastery, is best remembered for two negative incidents: his "resignation" in response to sexual harassment allegations, and his description of Islam as a "religion of violence" and Prophet Muhammad as a "prophet of sword" in his birthplace of Regensburg, Germany, a year after taking office.

Emergence of first cases in Ireland and Germany

With the exception of the cases in the United States, which involved large sums of compensation against the Catholic Church in 2007, the first sexual harassment cases in Europe were reported in Ireland. After it was revealed that priests and nuns affiliated with the Catholic church in Ireland sexually abused thousands of children, the church shielded the abusers by assigning them to different locations. This situation was kept hidden for nearly 50 years because of the “what happens here stays here” mentality. The Vatican condemned the situation in Ireland, where the incidents were first revealed, and ordered an investigation, stating that this was a “great sin” in a letter to the priests on the sexual harassment cases suddenly exposed after years of being hidden and could no longer be concealed.

The sexual harassment episode gained a new dimension when the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), a Christian religious order founded in France in the 16th century, broke out at Canisius College in Berlin, one of the most prestigious colleges in Germany. As soon as the complaints about the past that had been kept in the dark for whatever reason surfaced, they were relayed to the media by the victims of the incidents. The principal, who had been at the school since 1994, then issued a letter to former students for the first time in German history, apologizing to all victims; nonetheless, the offenders were not prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. It was eventually discovered that similar incidents had occurred at other boarding schools affiliated with the Jesuits and Catholics.

It should also be noted that about 15% of the priests and nuns in some Catholic church administrations in the US have been reported to have sexually harassed someone. In addition, it is reported that more than 10,000 sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents took place in Australia between 1960 and 2015, most of which were swept under the rug.

Clerical celibacy debate

Due to the discovery of children's remains in the yard of a boarding school in Canada, as well as recent sexual harassment and pedophilia-related incidents, clerical celibacy, an important part of clerical life in Catholicism that essentially goes against human nature, has been a topic of discussion for a long time. It is also stated in this context that the practice of (total) celibacy is not helpful for one's mental health either. For example, Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg stated that it is “sexual corruption” and the “institution of clerical celibacy,” not the church or the clergy, that are to blame for pedophilia-related incidents. Anke Bisschops of the Faculty of Catholic Theology of Tilburg University in the Netherlands also advocates the abolition of the practice of “celibacy”. American Cardinal Raymond Burke likewise criticized the practice for corrupting people and leading to sexual harassment.

All of this essentially demonstrates the importance of a decree in the Qur'an and Sunnah that “there is no celibacy in Islam”. For, according to Islam, which is a natural religion, human beings have natural characteristics, attributes, needs, and desires; a virtuous person is one who exercises moderation in all their actions and when satisfying their needs and desires. A moderate person, on the other hand, is one who has developed their innate abilities in such a way that they do not deviate into excessiveness or any radical deficiency and has avoided disrupting balances by observing equity in all things. The perfect human being according to Islam does not choose to live alone in mountain tops, in caves, or underground in order to be a good servant of God; instead, they live as an ordinary person among other people and do not take the path of celibacy or monastic practices. Let’s remember the following verse in the Qur’an: “… and monasticism they invented—We did not ordain it for them—only to seek God’s Contentment. Yet they did not observe it with proper observance...” (Surah al-Hadîd (Iron): 57/27).

However, while clerical celibacy is an essential element at play here, it would be unfair to conclude that sexual harassment and pedophilia-related crimes in Catholic churches are simply the result of clerical celibacy. We must note that the roots of the problem lie much deeper and involve administrative aspects, in addition to being closely linked to the Catholic “pastor/priest-nun” identity and education. In fact, while answering questions about the corruption and the sexual harassment scandals in the Vatican in 2017, Pope Francis said that [only] persons whose “emotional maturity is established” would be admitted to clergy training in order to prevent sexual harassment incidents, which he described as a “disease”. On the other hand, Christians-Catholics, who have slandered Prophet Muhammad throughout history due to his marriage to Aisha, now ironically face accusations of “sexual harassment” and “pedophilia”. We must also emphasize that the Western countries that immediately mobilize international institutions, and especially human rights organizations, in the face of such events involving Islamic countries and the Muslims, generally make efforts to conceal such events when they are about Judeo-Christians.

It is clear that all of these issues indicate a crisis situation for Catholics that necessitates radical decisions, and especially reform of their understanding of clerical celibacy. Although it is difficult to predict what kind of measures will be taken as a result of the investigations into the latest incident in Canada, where Catholics are at the center of the controversy, it is certain that the Catholic denomination and belief system have suffered a major blow and have damaged their global reputation because of these events.

Islamophobic attack on Pakistani family

On June 6, an Islamophobic attack killed four Muslims in Canada, which had already been rocked by the discovery of children's bodies in a schoolyard. A minibus driver crashed into a Muslim family walking on the sidewalk, killing four of them, including a 15-year-old boy, and critically injuring another 9-year-old son. It was declared by the regional police chief that this attack was a planned and hate-motivated act committed for Islamophobic reasons. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that he stands with Muslims, that Islamophobia has no place in their society, and that this hatred is insidious and despicable, and must be stopped. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, on the other hand, described the killing of the four members of a Pakistani Muslim family in Canada as an “act of terrorism”.

Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin also emphasized the necessity of considering the issue as racism and a hate crime, saying that “This is the latest example of how fabricated fear would turn into hatred and how hatred into hostility and violence”. AK Party Spokesperson Ömer Çelik, on the other hand, argued that the attack was not a simple criminal act, but rather it was the promotion of Islamophobia and said that the political-media language that gives too much impunity to hate crimes is the main culprit.

The attack was generally regarded in the Canadian, US, and Western media as an ordinary criminal act/murder and not as a “terrorist attack”; whereas if a Muslim had carried out this attack, it would have been immediately dubbed “Islamic terrorism” without hesitation. Although the victims of this incident are a family of five of Pakistani origin, the target of this terrorist violence is Canada as a country and society as a whole. We might, perhaps, also argue that this anti-Islamic attack may have been planned with the intention of diverting attention away from the discoveries in a boarding school’s yard, which had pretty much dominated the country’s agenda. This attack has, once again, reminded us of the mosque shooting in Quebec City in 2017 carried out by racist perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette, in which six people were killed and five were injured. Thus, it must be understood that Canada, which is regarded as one of the most livable countries in the world, where there is a strong emphasis on multicultural policies and there is even a ministry of immigration, is rapidly becoming a place with a growing number of anti-Islamic attacks, and that this is doing great damage to Canada’s image.

In this respect, the real test of the “Canadian model”, which is the origin of philosophical literature on multiculturalism, is also with Muslims, just as it is in the West and Europe. We do not have much hope for the Vatican, but we do hope that Canada will promptly take steps to save its exemplary multicultural image of the past, both in terms of the remains of children in the boarding school’s yard and the Islamophobic attack.


*The writer is a faculty member at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He specializes in hadith studies, the relationship between Jewish and Christian cultures, inter-religious and intercultural interactions, Orientalism-Occidentalism, theopolitics, anti-Islamism (cultural racism), and Islam and Muslims in Europe and the West.

**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Al-Mujtama.

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