WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
A Catholic priest has been banned by a Winnipeg archdiocese from speaking publicly after accusing residential school survivors of lying about sexual abuse to get more money from court settlements, of spreading falsehoods about residential schools, and joking about shooting those writing graffiti on churches, among other comments.
The statements were made over weeks of services at St. Emile Roman Catholic Church, and were included in videos on its Facebook page.
During a July 10 mass Father Rhéal Forest — who was temporarily placed at St. Emile while the parish’s regular pastor, Father Gerry Sembrano, was on vacation — said residential school survivors lied about being sexually abused so they would receive more money during the settlement process with the federal government.
“If they wanted extra money, from the money that was given to them, they had to lie sometimes — lie that they were abused sexually and, oop, another $50,000,” Forest said.
“It’s kind of hard if you’re poor not to lie,” he continued, adding that all of the Indigenous people who he knew during his 22 years working up north liked residential schools.
WATCH | Forest’s remarks about residential schools:
Forest acknowledged that a few had bad treatment, but said some of that was due not to nuns and priests but rather night watchmen.
In its 2015 report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said there have been “over 40 successful convictions of former residential school staff members who sexually or physically abused students.” As of Jan. 31 of that year, it said 37,951 claims for injuries resulting from physical and sexual abuse at residential schools had been received.
In another mass, Forest described passing by another local church that had been vandalized with the words “Save the children,” a phrase used by Indigenous people and allies in reference to residential schools.
Forest said he’d like to scare off vandals with a shotgun blast and shoot them if they didn’t run away.
“As I’m passing by, thoughts of anger. If I had a shotgun at night and I’d see them, I’d go, ‘Boom!’ just to scare them and if they don’t run away, I’ll shoot them,” Forest said in the July 18 sermon, laughing.
He then quickly backtracked, saying: “But this would not help, it’s bad to do that, I’d go have a chat with them.” He went on to blame the media for making the vandals believe the Catholic Church killed residential school children.
CBC News has requested an interview with Forest. The Archdiocese of St. Boniface says it is considering the request.
The archdiocese was made aware of the comments on Monday, after CBC Manitoba flagged the videos. St. Emile regularly livestreams its services.
Daniel Bahuaud, a spokesperson for the archdiocese and Archbishop Albert LeGatt, said the videos involving Forest have since been removed and apologized for the comments. The archdiocese has also barred Forest from preaching and teaching publicly.
LeGatt and the archdiocese “completely disavow” Forest’s comments, Bahuaud said in an email.
“We very much regret the pain they may have caused to many people, not least of course Indigenous people and, more specifically, survivors of the Residential School system.”
In an interview Bahuaud said any further punishment for Forest would be decided by LeGatt.
Kyle Mason — an Indigenous leader, activist and former Christian minister — said he was surprised “anybody within [the Catholic Church] can be so out of touch and so outdated, and have these really disgusting views going on within themselves.”
Mason went on to say if the church “is really concerned about reconciliation here in Canada, they would be enthusiastically trying to make sure that all their priests and all their staff are well aware and that there would be no room for these kinds of comments.”
Mason said he is glad to hear Forest is not allowed to preach publicly anymore, or take part in church educational activities. He said he would like to see Forest learn more about what really happened at residential schools before he is allowed to resume his public duties.
WATCH | Forest’s full July 10 residential school remarks:
“I would strongly encourage [the church] to use this as a teaching moment for them to make sure that anybody — priests, nuns, staff, whatever it is, whatever their leaders are within their ranks — are well-informed on residential schools, Sixties Scoop and all the other ways that we are seeing the impact of these atrocities within our society,” he said.
When asked what impact Forest’s words would have on reconciliation, Mason was hopeful.
“In my opinion, reconciliation can’t be stopped. It can be slow sometimes, but it cannot be stopped.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC’s new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: [email protected].