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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's aboriginal community hopes Pope Benedict will acknowledge the abuses inflicted on native children at residential schools run by the Catholic church, a top official said on Wednesday.
Phil Fontaine, leader of the Association of First Nations, is due to meet the Pope at the Vatican on April 29 to discuss the schools.
Canada formally apologized last year for an assimilation policy that forced 150,000 native Indians into boarding schools far from home, where their languages and cultural traditions were banned, and where many said they were sexually and physically abused.
Catholic churches ran around 75 percent of the residential schools, which mainly operated from the 1870s to the 1970s.
"It is my fervent hope that this Papal audience will include a statement from Pope Benedict to all survivors of Indian residential schools," Fontaine told a news conference.
"We also hope the statement will reference the role that the Catholic Church played in the administration and operation of the schools, and the impact it had on our survivors and communities ... this is a moral issue for many of us."
Indian leaders say the abuses at the school help explain why many of Canada's one million aboriginals live in poverty and suffer high levels of crime, illness and unemployment.
Although individual Catholic dioceses have apologized for their role in running the schools, the top leadership of the church has not yet said it was sorry.
"The task of healing and reconciliation for survivors, Catholics and all Canadians, will be greatly assisted if the Pope formally acknowledges the Indian residential school system and the harms it inflicted on our people," said Fontaine.
In May 2006, Canada reached a C$1.9 billion ($1.6 billion) settlement with the roughly 90,000 school survivors.
Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he expected the Pope would "acknowledge the pain and the difficulty and the involvement of the church".
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson