Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry seeks proof about missing children claims

Orange shirt posters, each with the name of one of the 139 residential schools that operated in Canada, circled the grounds of St. Mary Parish in Saskatoon during a four-day 2021 memorial wake held in Saskatoon for those who died at residential schools. The retired bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary is challenging an interim report of the federal justice minister’s special advisor on missing children and unmarked graves associated with Indian residential schools. (File Photo by Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

While not denying Church wrongs, retired Calgary bishop fears a lasting narrative of murderous priests, nuns despite lack of proof

By Peter Stockland and Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – As he lay in a Calgary hospital bed in late July, retired Bishop Fred Henry summoned the energy to publicly break the silence around what he considers the prevailing “lie” about missing Indian residential school children.

“Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential child is actually missing in the sense that his (or) her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?” he demanded in an e-mail.

The query itself was posed to both The Catholic Register and a former Register columnist who has challenged political accounts of Indian residential school history. Bishop Emeritus Henry apparently went to Catholic media because he has not yet received a response to an initial group e-mail he sent to his brother bishops six weeks ago.

On June 26, using the subject line “Lockjaw,” Henry asked the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly and formally reject the interim report of the federal justice minister’s special advisor on missing children and unmarked graves associated with Indian residential schools.

As part of her report, Kimberly Murray recommended creating the criminal offence of “denialism” that could be applied to those who dispute Indigenous accounts related to residential schools. Then Justice Minister David Lametti indicated he was amenable to drafting such legislation. In his June e-mail to the bishops, Henry compared the CCCB’s non-response to an ostrich with its head in the sand and its tail in the air.

“I have not had any response from the powers that be,” he told The Catholic Register newspaper in a subsequent e-mail.

In response to an inquiry from The Register, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, two of the Church’s leaders on the Indigenous file, said they are waiting for the final report from Murray before commenting on the special advisor’s work.

Yet even hospitalized at age 80, “Red Fred” as he became popularly known during his active ministry, expresses a sense of urgency for having what he regards as the whole truth told about Indian residential school history.

In fact, Henry’s health is so fragile that he replied to The Register’s request for an interview by saying he would “love to” participate but was on his way to respite care after 11 days in hospital. Even minus a direct conversation, however, his take on the current narrative vis-à-vis Indian residential schools is unabashedly iconoclastic. He does not dispute the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. He simply insists there must be boundaries, and they must begin where the truth leaves off.

“It seems abundantly clear to me (to ask what follows) if the Catholic Church… allows the lie that there are thousands of missing residential school children to become embedded in stone? Obviously, (it means) these thousands of missing children were murdered by Catholic priests and nuns and clandestinely buried in unmarked graves. Is the Catholic Church prepared to go that far in the name of reconciliation?” he demands in the e-mail sent to The Register.

Henry foresees precisely that outcome “rapidly happening” given recent reports from Parliament and an upcoming report to the UN in September by Special Rapporteur Francisco Cali Tzay, who visited Canada this spring but had no time to meet with the CCCB.

“Would it help Indigenous people across Canada to better lives if the Catholic Church did go so far as to take responsibility for the murder and clandestine burial of thousands of residential school children in the name of reconciliation?” Henry asks. “No, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t improve the lives of Indigenous people one iota if that monstrous libel against the Oblates, the Sisters of St. Ann, the Grey Nuns et al were to become the accepted ‘truth’ in Canada.”

In his e-mail, the bishop who served the Diocese of Calgary for almost 19 years and who has been a priest for 55 years, wonders whether his fellow clergy simply don’t see the implications of allowing that “truth” to stand.

“If so, it’s not because those pushing the genocide (of Indigenous people) narrative haven’t made it clear where things are headed. It’s not the federal government that’s going to be held responsible for Canada’s murder and clandestine burial of thousands of missing children. It’s the Catholic Church.”

Henry notes an additional confusing factor is his inability to get any kind of answer about the existential questions he’s been raising, especially given the “synodal listening process” the Church is undertaking.

“For some reason ‘they have eyes to see but refuse to see, ears to hear but refuse to listen,’ ” he writes. “Their silence is doing irreparable harm to the Church that I love.”

Archbishops respond

Archbishops Smith and Bolen counter, however, that they do indeed have their listening ears open — they’re focused now on hearing the Indigenous side that has historically and tragically been ignored in Canada even by the Church.

“I would just say let the (special) interlocutor do her job,” Smith said. “It is an interim report. What we’re focused on here at the archdiocese and across the country with the CCCB is working with her.

“We made a pledge long ago as bishops to make records available to look into the truth of things, and we are happy and very ready to help the Indigenous peoples tell their story. That is our focus right now. Let’s see this process finish. Once you have a finished process, you are in a better position to assess it overall and make whatever statements might be necessary.”

Bolen stressed that impatience or urgency can’t be allowed to interfere with the complexity of Church-Indigenous history.

“The bishops, with the churches in Canada, are moving in the directions we have moved because we recognize, as Pope Francis has articulated, that the residential school system, as a system, was catastrophic for Indigenous people. It was an outcome of colonization. There is a rightful need to apologize, to engage in projects that support Indigenous language and culture — to learn a new way of walking together,” he said.

“Good that historians are asking questions, and good that we carry out that work as a society, which is part of the work of truth telling. The bishops are rightfully focusing on the task of reconciliation, not so much on evaluating or analyzing a particular report,” Bolen added.

Bishop Henry took issue with comments in 2016

Yet Calgary’s former bishop is no “Henry-come-lately” to challenging the accepted wisdom around Indian residential schools, nor is he a “denier” of the very real wrongs done to Indigenous people by that 19th- and mid-20th century system. While still leading the diocese, he wrote a stinging 2016 letter to Carolyn Bennett, then federal minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, taking factual issue with her public comments that placed full responsibility for the debacle on the Catholic Church.

Itemizing steps that 50 Catholic entities took over the years to contribute financially to a settlement for survivors of residential schools, Henry acknowledged the “dismal failure” of the Moving Forward Campaign to meet its fundraising targets but insisted the leadership of the Church gave its best efforts to attain its goal.

“However, the Church’s moral obligations are being met on an almost daily basis. I wish I could say the same for the government and the legal system. I would strongly suggest you take the plank out of your own eye before you attempt to take the splinter out of anyone else’s,” he told Bennett.