Toronto-area priest resigns after backlash from sermon on ‘good done’ in residential schools

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A priest who referred to the “good done” by the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools has resigned from his role as pastor, the Archdiocese of Toronto confirmed on Friday.

During a sermon last Sunday, Monsignor Owen Keenan, the pastor of the Merciful Redeemer Parish in Mississauga, west of Toronto, talked about the the remains of an estimated 215 children discovered at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. run by the church 

“Two-thirds of the country is blaming the church, which we love, for the tragedies that occurred there,” he said on a video that was posted to the church’s YouTube page but was later deleted. 

“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.” 

In a statement on Twitter Friday, the Archdiocese of Toronto said Keenan resigned from his role as pastor and has been placed on an indefinite leave of absence. 

“We apologize for the pain caused by his remarks,” the Archdiocese said.

Keenan’s resignation comes after remains were found at another former residential school site in Saskatchewan earlier this week. The Cowessess First Nation said it has discovered hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. 

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

“Many people had very positive experiences of residential schools. Many people received health care and education and joyful experiences,” he said, while calling for prayers and reconciliation.

His comments were met with widespread criticism, including from Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who said his comments showed “a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the core tragedies of the residential school system in Canada.”

He defended his comments on Wednesday in a statement to CBC News, saying 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 National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates that about 4,100 children died at residential schools, based on death records, but has said the true total is likely much higher. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said large numbers of Indigenous children who were forcibly sent to residential schools never returned home.

In the same sermon, Keenan criticized Catholic schools for flying Pride flags this month, saying the church hoped they’d show “courage” by displaying a cross or sacred heart instead.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494. 

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