Child abuse from religious leaders is acutely horrendous. Children often see those leaders as representatives of God. As a result, it is natural for the children to think what is being done to them has the sanction of God. That adds a particularly distasteful element to the abuse. Some of the victims might believe it must be their own fault.
At the same time, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) reported, “complaints were improperly investigated.” The TRC mentioned one case that happened in 1956 when complaints were made against a principal and the investigation was made by school staff members. As the TRC found, “the church officials failed to report cases of abuse to Indian Affairs, and Indian Affairs failed to report cases of abuse to families.” In fact it was not until 1968 that Indian Affairs began to compile and circulate a list of former staff members who were not to be hired at other schools without the approval of officials in Ottawa. As well, as the TRC found, “The churches and the government remained reluctant to take matters to the police. As a result prosecutions were rare.” Of course that meant perpetrators could continue their predation elsewhere unhindered.
The TRC identified over 45 successful convictions of former residential school staff who had physically or sexually abused students. As they said, “Most of those prosecutions were the result of the determination of former students to see justice done.” It was not the government nor the churches that get the credit for taking action. It was the victims and their families who stood up, that deserve the credit. Were it not for those heroic actions, Canada would never have learned what happened. This secret would likely have been buried forever.
The reluctance to report to the police is one of the reasons so few Canadians knew what was going on. After the lawsuits against the churches and the Canadian government were settled, a process was established to assess claims of abuse in residential schools in order to take the matters out of the hands of the courts where the resolution of claims was dragging on unpardonably. As of January 15, 2015 just before the TRC released its report they reported that 37,951 claims for injuries resulting from physical and sexual abuse had been made under the Independent Assessment Process (‘IAP’). We must recall that a lot of people had already died before they had a chance to make claims and many did not want to reopen old wounds.
So, the percentage of former students who could have made claims was high. Very high. Remember about 150,000 students went through the system. Often people mention isolated cases of where indigenous students felt that they had been well treated in those schools. For example, the Assiniboine Residential School in Winnipeg which I and Chris recently visited was one of those schools were many have favourable stories of the schooling they received. But the pattern was clear.
The TRC reported in 2015 that pursuant to the Common Experience Payment (‘CEP’) program established under the settlement agreement, 78,748 claims of former residents of residential schools were recognized. These payments were made to people who attended the schools and did not have to make specific claims of abuse in order to speed resolution of the claims and in order to permit those who wanted to move on (as so many non-indigenous Canadians have urged the indigenous). As the TRC said,
“The number of claims for compensation for abuse is equivalent to approximately 48% of the number of former students who were eligible to make such claims. This number does not include those former students who died prior to May 2005. As the numbers demonstrate, the abuse of children was rampant. “
The numbers do not support the contention some have made that most students in Residential schools were satisfied with their education.