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Truth and Reconciliation in the United States

2011 September 29

On Tuesday of this week a new sex abuse lawsuit was filed against the Roman Catholic Church in Montana. While sadly the need for such lawsuits is nothing new, this one is different for being one of the first involving abuse by nuns toward Native American children. Some 45 Native Americans are accusing the nuns (and priests as well) of raping and molesting them during their time in residential schools from the 1940s-70s. Although the time limit to pursue criminal charges has long since passes, their attorney commented that the Native American plaintiffs “want accountability. The perpetrators have never been criminally prosecuted; they’ve never been punished,” but that, “It’s unfortunate that the only accountability that remains for the victims is through the civil system.”

These are the Native American children who had no choice but to attend these schools and are just now finding their voice to start healing from their experiences there. For those unfamiliar with the Residential or Boarding school system required of Native Americans (because it is definitely not something taught in most history classes), these were government-funded, generally church-run schools that “were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.” If you’ve seen the film Rabbit Proof Fence you might have some clue about what these schools were like, but they existed in the US and Canada as well (and some are still functioning in the US). Native American children would be placed in these schools – often by force against their parent’s wishes – to have their culture “civilized” out of them as a means of assimilating them to white culture. Often parents would not know where their children were taken, and frequently never saw their children again. Children in these schools were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. Many of the schools used the children as forced labor for government projects. As stories of these schools have emerged, tales of molestation, rape, abuse, disappearances, murders, and medical experimentation and sterilization are common themes.

The horror of these schools is a reality as are the racist assumptions that lead to their formation. The children who were forced into these schools now have emotional scars that need serious healing. As in any case of abuse, to find that healing and to properly mourn what they lost through what was inflicted upon them, the victims need to tell the truth of their experiences. And in the US, the only legal way to do so is to bring a lawsuit against those that harmed them. Sadly though that opens up the victims to further abuses and pain. Those bringing this particular lawsuit are being vilified for their audacity to accuse elderly nuns of abuse. They are being accused of being greedy for money and that they are only doing this out of a hatred for the Catholic Church. As a numbers of responses have said, how dare the Native Americans mar the good name of these nuns and the Church without proof (as if the testimony of 45 Native Americans doesn’t count as proof). If this is even allowed to come to trial (which is doubtful since the allegations are so old), they will face further struggles as their story is suppressed by the loopholes of the legal system.

In reading about this recent lawsuit all I could think is that this is exactly why we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, describes how it was precisely for this reason of allowing the truth to be told with the least amount of pain for the victims that South Africa set up their commission as they did. They knew that to bring all the acts of injustice to trial would not only bankrupt the nation, but that it would hide the truth as perpetrators did everything in their power to not be found guilty and punished. It would not bring healing to their nation to have the victims constantly be told that they were lying about their pain and abuse. So the Truth and Reconciliation Commission choose to promise amnesty in exchange for confessions of truth. Only by telling the truth – all of the murders, abuses, and sins – could a person be exempt from being possibly punished by the government for their crimes. While this system angered those hungry for revenge, it served the purpose of telling the truth necessary for healing. (And it’s not like perpetrators were never punished – confessing to such crimes often led to ostracism from friends, broken marriages, and even suicides as they came face to face with their depravity). But as the name states – the purpose is reconciliation not revenge.

Canada has created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for precisely the purpose of telling the truth about the Native American residential schools. The Commission believes they have a mandate to find out the truth of what happened in those schools so as to help with the reconciliation process of all involved. The system is far from perfect, but it is a step towards allowing true healing to be possible for the survivors. Instead of making the victims out to be the bad guys as they search for healing in a system that often refuses to acknowledge their continued mistreatment, a Commission like this in the US would at least start a dialogue that is long overdue. This most recent lawsuit and the responses it has provoked serve as poignant reminders that there is a lot of truth our nation still needs to face. Pretending such things don’t exist by writing them out of our textbooks or washing our hands of any responsibility only leads to more pain – for everyone. The truth will set us free, but only if we are courageous enough to let go of our defensiveness and let it be heard.


8 Responses leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011

    Excellent, as usual Julie. I always feel more educated after reading your blogs. Thanks for that!

  2. September 29, 2011

    I agree with David Hanson. This is a concise summary of a terrible problem. We would do well to learn from our neighbors.

  3. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    October 3, 2011

    . . .and some are still functioning in the US. . .


    • October 5, 2011

      As stated on the current Bureau of Indian Affairs website in their faq section –

      The BIE school system has 184 elementary and secondary schools and dormitories located on 63 reservations in 23 states, including seven off-reservation boarding schools and 122 schools directly controlled by tribes and tribal school boards under contracts or grants with the BIE. The bureau also funds 66 residential programs for students at 52 boarding schools and at 14 dormitories housing those attending nearby tribal or public schools. The school system employs approximately 5,000 teachers, administrators, and support personnel, while an estimated 6,600 work in tribal school systems. In School Year 2006-07, the schools served almost 48,000 students.

  4. October 5, 2011

    The issue of a U. S. Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come up in another context two years ago. I remember hearing Keith Olbermann and a guest discussing the establishment of such a thing when it became obvious the Obama administration had no stomach for holding those who were involved in torture (enhanced interrogation!?) during the past administration accountable. [One of the most egregious reactions to the 9/11 terror attacks]. Olbermann’s guest, a law professor, sniffed at the idea of such a commission, viewing it as appropriate for an emerging but fragile democracy life South Africa, but beneath the dignity of the U.S. system.

    He was wrong for all the reasons you highlight. A T&R C enables people to share the facts of a horrid situation. Prosecution has the opposite result: people are motivated to hide the truth. A T&R C makes public what has been hidden, often in the souls of perpetrators which are as broken as are those of their victims and as much in need of true confession and genuine reconciliation. Because prosecution has punishment as its goal, it is often too heavy and wieldy a stick to get at the truth.

    Hence, both the Clinton and Obama Admins have refused to prosecute the crimes of their predecessors, recognizing that such tactics smell of political motives and invite retaliation by the other political side. Yet because Clinton did not prosecute them, those involved in Iran-contra crimes came back to haunt us in the “W” Admin. Those very same people were in the middle of the illegal wire-tapping and toture initiatives. No surprise.

    Had a T&R C been established under Clinton to bring out the truth after Iran-Contra or by Obama after these latest illegal actions, the truth would have become public knowledge without concern about political taint. As it is, without the truth, we have no public airing of two truly egregious episodes of government overreach and not only are the perpetrators of crimes left to walk free, there is no public cloud over their heads nor national consensus on what happened nor that it must never happen again. In fact, the mastermind of much of the most recent skulduggery began profiting this summer on a book in which he brags about what the whole world (except on Fox News) knows are his crimes. Sometimes truth is vastly more important than punishment.

    And in the end, reconciliation, don’t we know, based on the truth, will be everyone’s path to peace. In the end the bad news must come out so that the good news can triumph. Surely that is what we mean when we say, Love (God) wins.

  5. February 19, 2013

    Thank you for your insightful posting. I have also posted about the need of a TRC of the USA and started a petition on facebook. I’ll make a link to your article, too.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Julie Clawson reflects on the lack of truth and reconciliation that has occurred in the United States, compared to Canada’s recent endeavors and South Africa’s famous post-apartheid commission. | jonathan stegall: creative tension

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