Catholic order pledges $100m in reparations to descendants of enslaved people
Leaders of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States promise to raise sum to begin ‘process of truth and reconciliation’
MAR 16, 2021 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: MAR 17, 2021
An order of Catholic priests has pledged $100m in reparations to descendants of Black people it enslaved and sold, in the largest initiative of its kind by the church.
Leaders of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States have promised to raise the sum, which will be paid to a foundation set up with a group of descendants, and to “begin a very serious process of truth and reconciliation”.
“Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf and it can never be put back,” said the Rev Timothy P Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference.
“Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today. The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation. Without this joining of hearts and hands in true unity, the cycle of hatred and inequality in America will never end.”
Jesuits used enslaved labour and sold enslaved people for more than a century, to support clergy, churches and schools, including what is now known as Georgetown University in Washington DC.
The announcement on Monday is thought to be one of the largest attempts to atone for slavery by an institution and the most substantial by the Catholic church. It comes amid growing calls for reparations across US institutions including churches, colleges and Congress.
Descendants of enslaved people called on the order to raise $1bn, after discovering that their ancestors were among 272 enslaved men, women and children sold in 1838 to plantation owners in Louisiana, by the Jesuit owners of Georgetown.
While the order has committed to $100m over three to five years, with $15m deposited in a trust so far, Father Kensicki and Joseph M Stewart, acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, said $1bn was the long-term goal.
“We now have a pathway forward that has not been travelled before,” Stewart told the New York Times. “They [the order] did not come running to us, but because we went to them with open arms and open hearts, they responded. They have embraced our vision.”
Each year about half the foundation’s funds will take the form of grants to organisations working on racial reconciliation, around a quarter will fund scholarships and educational grants to descendants, and some will be allocated for the emergency needs of descendants who are old or sick.
About 5,000 living descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits have reportedly been identified by a non-profit, the Georgetown Memory Project.
Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor of history at Villanova University, said the move was an “important step forward” and “continued efforts to seek atonement for these egregious sin histories should be applauded”.
But she added: “Hopefully, this most recent announcement will not be the end for a religious community that for well over 400 years actively participated in and financially benefitted from the slave trade, colonisation, slavery and segregation.”
As the first and largest corporate slaveholder in the Americas and the largest Christian supporter of segregation in the US, the Catholic church will “never be able to repay fully what is owed for the millions of Black lives stolen and destroyed by its own practices of slavery and segregation”, Williams said.
The historian said she hoped other religious orders, US bishops and the Vatican would follow the Jesuits’ lead and called on them to formally acknowledge and apologise for the church’s history of slavery, segregation and racial exclusion; to institutionalise teaching of Black and Black Catholic history; and to “work in complete conjunction with the descendants of its victims to realise true racial justice and reconciliation”.
Rashawn Ray, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said the move “sends a message” to other religious institutions but added that it “doesn’t come close” to bridging the racial wealth gap.
“While the $100m is laudable and important,” he said, “that $1bn that they discussed raising should still be on the table because we know that when it comes to the racial wealth gap, when it comes to the legacy of slavery in the United States and what selling slaves has meant for building wealth, particularly white wealth and institutional wealth in higher education, even with the $100m it still doesn’t even remotely come close to making that racial gap.”