OTTAWA - Pope Benedict is expected to acknowledge the suffering of aboriginals at Canadian residential schools when he meets a delegation of survivors in the Vatican later this month.

But the Pope is unlikely to issue a formal apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, which operated about 75 per cent of the roughly 130 schools.

"I expect that he's going to acknowledge the pain and the difficulty and the involvement of the church, different church groups within the residential schools," said Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But Weisgerber made it clear that the Pope is unlikely to apologize, as other denominations and the federal government have done.

"There are lots of discussions about what words can mean and can you really apologize for something somebody else did," he said.

"There are lots of issues around that. So I think that's why we tend not to want to use that word."

Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and himself a residential school survivor, said he'll be satisfied with an "acknowledgment" of the church's role in the "saddest, most tragic chapter in Canadian history." He also wants a commitment from the Pope to help rebuild the historic relationship between the Catholic Church and aboriginal people.

"In whatever language and however it's expressed, as long as there's an acknowledgment," Fontaine said, allowing that an actual apology would be ideal but is unlikely.

Fontaine and Weisgerber are to lead the delegation, which will include residential school survivors, aboriginal leaders and elders. They will be given a rare private audience with the Pope on April 29, a meeting Fontaine labelled "historic and momentous."

An estimated 150,000 native children were taken from their families to attend the church-run residential schools, which operated for a century up until the 1980s. The goal was to convert the children to Christianity and assimilate them into mainstream culture.

Many of the children were physically and sexually abused.

The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches have all apologized for their part in running the federally mandated schools. Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year issued a formal apology on behalf of the federal government.

The Catholic Church "is a missing piece in our effort to achieve reconciliation," Fontaine said.

"A statement from Pope Benedict XVI will close the circle and enable us to move forward."

Weisgerber said many of the Catholic missionaries involved in the schools were motivated by a desire to provide a good education to aboriginal children. But he said such good intentions were overshadowed by problems caused by cultural differences, insufficient funding and "human failings" which led, in the worst cases, to "exploitation and cruelty."

Weisgerber said he met the Pope last November and explained the Third World conditions in which many aboriginals in Canada still live. He told the Pope that no other group in Canada is more in need of the church's assistance.

"But in order to do that we have to regain trust and the residential school chapter is an unsolved issue and we have to address this," Weisgerber said he told the Pope.

"And he understood that very, very quickly and he said, 'I am the only one in the church who can speak in the name of the church, that's my role and I'll be very happy to do that.' "

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