Mississauga Catholic priest resigns after fierce backlash over disturbing residential school remarks
Owen Keenan’s words cut like a whip. The Catholic priest is now paying the price.
The man who is supposed to represent the compassion and forgiveness of the Catholic Church, instead expressed warped views that represent all that is wrong with the institution he was groomed by for decades.
On Friday, he resigned.
Keenan was the subject of widespread condemnation on social media and through other channels, following his disturbing comments during a sermon at Mississauga’s Merciful Redeemer Parish Church on Sunday, in which he claimed, "Many people had very positive experiences of residential schools. Many people received health care and education and joyful experiences.”
He suggested the Catholic Church was being unfairly criticized after the remains of 215 children were discovered near a former Kamloops B.C. residential school. This week, the remains of more than 700 people were discovered next to a former residential school in Saskatchewan, and officials estimate there are thousands more scattered across the country.
Across more than a century, Indigenous children were ripped from their families who never saw them again. That Keenan could think plenty of “good” came from this, shocked many across the country. The idea that someone who holds such views could also hold a place of moral leadership was deeply disturbing to many.
"Two-thirds of the country is blaming the church, which we love, for the tragedies that occurred there," he told congregants last weekend.
"I presume the same number would thank the church for the good done in those schools, but of course, that question was never asked, and we are not allowed to even say that good was done there. I await to see what comes to my inbox."
There was an immediate backlash, and the church immediately took down a video of the sermon that had been posted on YouTube. But clips of it quickly spread on social media.
Stacey LaForme, Chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, told The Pointer prior to his resignation that Keenan’s comments initially angered him. He said the pastor should consider if he was suitable for the position of community leadership he held.
“I think making a statement like that — not understanding what is occurring in the world around you — shows a real and complete lack of awareness,” he said. “For someone who is actually in a leadership role, I would suggest the gentleman seriously go away for a little while and take some time to reflect [on if he is in] a role he’s suited for.”
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, a practising Catholic who knows Keenan, issued a statement condemning his remarks.
“The government of Canada and many churches, including the Catholic Church, operated Canada’s residential schools for close to 150 years,” Crombie wrote in a statement. “Residential schools were instruments of cultural genocide used against Indigenous Peoples. While we are finally listening to the voices of those who experienced first hand residential schools, too many other voices were silenced and lost forever.”
“I was extremely disappointed to learn about some of the comments Monsignor Owen Keenan made during recent homilies at the Merciful Redeemer Parish – comments about the residential school system and about catholic schools in Peel choosing to fly the Pride flag during Pride Month.”
Owen Keenan will no longer speak before congregants at Mississauga's Merciful Redeemer Parish Church. (Image: YouTube-Merciful Redeemer Parish Church)
The mayor referred to remarks Keenan also made about the raising of the Gay Pride flag at many Peel schools, which prompted him to condemn the action as an afront to Catholic values.
Keenan’s own values are anathema to those many in Canada hold, and his position as a moral leader in the community raised questions about whether someone like him should have any influence over the minds of parishioners, especially the young.
He faced a flood of condemnation on social media, where members of the public also criticized the Catholic Church and Pope Francis for refusing to apologize for what the institution did to generations of Canada’s Indigenous communities, literally attempting to exterminate their traditional identity and all memory of their way of life.
The Church is now in damage control.
The Archdiocese of Toronto, led by Cardinal Thomas Collins, issued a brief statement on Twitter Friday, announcing Keenan’s resignation.
“Regarding Msgr. Owen Keenan, Pastor of Merciful Redeemer Parish in Mississauga, Ont. Cardinal Collins has accepted Msgr. Keenan's resignation as pastor and placed him on an indefinite leave of absence. We apologize for the pain caused by his recent remarks.”
The statement suggests Keenan might still remain with the Catholic Church, receiving a salary.
Many Canadians have called for the Canadian government to begin taxing the Catholic Church, so revenues can either be given to Indigenous communities or programs can be established to provide support and education to help restore Indigenous identity and economic power, which were systematically and purposely destroyed by Ottawa and the Catholic Church over 150 years.
In 2018, Ontario’s PC government led by Premier Doug Ford, cancelled a curriculum revision designed to increase Indigenous voices. The project had planned to revise how social studies, geography and history were taught in schools in response to the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Chief LaForme wants to see significant resources put toward vital education improvements to properly teach the next generation of Canadians about their own history, which has been completely ignored by text books for more than a century.
“It’s important that we reinstate these things and get them up and running,” he said. “Our kids — and I say our kids in the context of kids in this country — need to be educated. They’re way smarter than we are and they’re ready to do the right thing… I see such bright and ready faces to meet the challenges of the world.”
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