Archbishop Justin Welby apologises for "building hell, putting children into it and staffing it"

Readers are advised this story mentions the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in institutions. There are no graphic accounts included, but the subject matter may be triggering for some people. 

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby delivered an unequivocal apology to children, grandchildren and survivors of Canadian residential schools over the weekend, describing their experiences as “a bit of hell” that was “built by the Church and in the name of the Church.”

The Anglican Church leader met with dignitaries from Indigenous governments from James Smith Cree Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. There, he heard the stories of school survivors about how the residential school system ripped families apart, raised self-doubt and self-confidence issues and left them with traumas as a result of sexual and physical abuse.

“It is the rawest, wickedest, most terrible thing, to molest a child while you read them the Bible,” a sombre Welby told the group after hearing the harrowing accounts.

Many of the survivors said they didn’t blame the church, and instead blamed the individuals acting on behalf of the church. However, Welby disagreed.

“The grace that you have shown in saying it was not the church that did this … it is an extraordinary grace. I suppose I want to say that that’s perhaps the only thing I question. No, it was not the church that did it. But it was the church that permitted it. That allowed it. That turned a blind eye to it. And still does, sometimes,” he said.

“And for that terrible crime, sin, evil, of deliberately, consciously, stupidly — because evil is stupid – building hell and putting children into it, and staffing it, I am more sorry than I could ever begin to express.”

“That is, both personally and in my role as Archbishop of Canterbury, as the senior bishop of the Church of England and the first among equals of the almost thousand bishops in the Anglican communion – the 80 million people. I am sorry. I am more sorry than I could say. I am ashamed. I am horrified.”

“I am more than sorry than I can say. I am ashamed, I am horrified” – Archbishop Justin Welby

The Anglican Church was just one of four Christian denominations that operated Canada’s residential schools for more than a century. While the Roman Catholic Church ran the majority of the schools, the Anglican Church ran 36 of the schools between 1820 and 1969.

Canadian “Indian”* residential schools were part of the Canadian Government’s policy of forced assimilation that resulted in the oppression of generations of children who were Indigenous to Canada. But the church’s treatment of Indigenous children entrusted to their care fell abysmally short of Christian standards – a fact that was documented through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Canada’s TRC was conducted from 2007 to 2015, and cost the nation’s government an estimated $72 million. More than 6500 witnesses across the country were interviewed and seven national events were held to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the history and legacy of the residential school system, and share and honour the experiences of former students and their families.

In 2015, when the TRC handed down their report, a formal apology delivered by the Pope was one of more than 90 recommendations issued. The Pope made that apology at the beginning of April this year (2022) and has committed to visiting Canada later this year to meet Indigenous communities to assist with reconciliation efforts.

Welby’s apology was well-received by at least one survivor who had shared his story, Dennis Sanderson. Sanderson attended Gordon’s Indian Residential School, about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina, for three years before attending the All Saints Residential School in Prince Albert. Both were operated by the Anglican Church.

“For the Anglican Church to say ‘I’m sorry’, for the Roman Catholic Church to say ‘I’m sorry’, I accept that, because I grew up to forgive in the later years of my life. To forgive what has been given to me, to forgive what has been taken away from me,” Sanderson told CTV News Saskatoon.

However, not all will be satisfied with an apology alone.

“What exactly is an apology? Is it simply public relations? Is it feel good?” Saskatoon Cree lawyer and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission general counsel Donald Worme told CBC Canada ahead of Welby’s visit.

“Deal with some of the historic impacts that they have been involved in as the Anglican Church. That would actually be meaningful.”

Worme would like to see the Anglican church fund healing lodges and other programs for survivors and their families.

In 2006, the federal government, churches and survivors signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, allowing churches to settle billions of dollars in liability from survivor lawsuits. Each Christian church agreed to turn over all relevant documents and pay compensation.

Worme and another former TRC lawyer, Thomas McMahon, said the Catholic Church was “by far the most litigious and obstructionist” in the process, “but the Anglican Church still hasn’t fully disclosed what it knows either.”

The Anglican Church agreed to pay $15.7 million as part of the agreement. The Anglican Church, along with United and Presbyterian Churches, soon complied and paid the full amounts they agreed to. The Catholic church did not.

But when the Catholic Church later negotiated a side deal, and eventually a controversial buyout that altered the compensation formula, the Anglican Church was refunded $2.8 million, according to the Anglican Church of Canada’s website. Anglican officials said all of the $2.8 million was invested in Indigenous ministry programs.

The lawyers said the compensation amounts and the refund may have been legal, but they weren’t right – especially given the wealth in assets of the churches.

On Saturday, after listening to survivors’ stories about residential schools, the institution’s lasting impacts and the traumas they have to live with, Welby said he would follow his apology with action. The Archbishop promised to talk with Archbishop Linda Nicholls, Canadian Anglican bishop and Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, about what they can do to address the damage left, in particular by the Doctrine of Discovery.

“I want to avoid what happens too easily at times like this, which is to overpromise and underdeliver,” Welby said.

“I want rather to underpromise and overdeliver if by God’s grace, I’m given the strength to do so.”

*”Indian” is a term that is generally not used now as a collective noun due to its incorrect origin and connections to coloniser policies and departments, though some individuals who are First Nations / Indigenous Peoples of Canada still choose. Eternity uses it here to identify the historic term for the schools and later in the article as the name of an official agreement.


If you have found the subject matter of this article upsetting, please seek support in your local area. If your life is in danger, please call your local emergency services. Some support services that might be helpful are:

In Canada, former Residential School students can call 1-866-925-4419 for emotional crisis referral services and information on other health supports from the Government of Canada. Indigenous peoples across Canada can also go to The Hope for Wellness Help Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for counselling and crisis intervention. 1-866-925-4419.

Relationships Australia services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Australia)

Reachout services for victim-survivors of sexual assault (Australia)

Blueknot Australia for survivors of child abuse who are adults (Australia)