For the first time since the start of a Canadian tour highlighted by apologies for the Catholic Church's role in Indigenous residential schools, Pope Francis on Thursday acknowledged sexual abuse inflicted on "minors and vulnerable people."

Speaking at a prayer service at Quebec City's Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral, Francis said the church in Canada is on a new path after being devastated by “the evil perpetrated by some of its sons and daughters.”

“I think in particular of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people, crimes that require firm action and an irreversible commitment,” he said in an address delivered in his native Spanish.

Francis has apologized during both the Alberta and Quebec legs of his visit for the role Catholic institutions played in the Indigenous residential school system — and until Thursday he had not mentioned sexual abuse. However, he did not specifically say sexual abuse happened at residential schools.

He said the Christian community must never again allow itself to be “infected” by the idea that one culture is superior to another, reiterating his plea for forgiveness. “The pain and the shame we feel must become an occasion for conversion: never again!”

Francis received a long-standing ovation after his address from the invitation-only congregation, which included bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians and pastoral workers from across Canada.

Indigenous people have been expressing a mixture of hope and skepticism over the Pope's visit, with some saying they want to hear about the actions that will follow the pontiff’s historic apologies.

Anishinaabe activist Sarain Fox and her cousin Chelsea Brunelle raised their fists Thursday morning as they held up a large banner reading "Rescind the doctrine" inside the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, just ahead of a mass led by Francis. The banner referred to the Doctrine of Discovery, which stems from a series of edicts, known as papal bulls, dating back to the 15th century.

In an interview after the service, Fox said that while some of the Pope's words on his Canadian trip were meaningful — even beautiful — "actions speak louder than words."

The Pope, she said, has failed to make it clear that the entire religious organization, not just a few bad people, was responsible for residential school abuses. And he has not commented on the doctrine that was used to justify colonizing lands that were considered to be uninhabited but were in fact home to Indigenous Peoples.

The women said they hadn't travelled from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., planning to protest but changed their minds after being offended by what they saw as a lack of Indigenous representation and care for survivors at Wednesday's papal events.

“My experience in Quebec has been that this entire event feels like no one consulted with the Indigenous community,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re a part of it.”

The theme of the mass was reconciliation, and the congregation was made up largely of residential school survivors and other Indigenous people. During his homily, the pontiff used two Bible stories — that of Adam and Eve and that of two disciples haunted by failure after the death of Jesus — to illustrate the church’s “difficult and demanding journey of healing and reconciliation.”

Chief Réal McKenzie of the Matimekush-Lac John Innu Nation said he was hopeful the Pope's visit and his message would provide healing for some, but he acknowledged it has divided communities. “Some are going to accept it," McKenzie said, but others are going to die without hearing what they consider a satisfactory response.

Jackie Gull-Barney, from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi in northern Quebec, said before the service that she was hoping to find healing and peace from the Pope's visit.

Gull-Barney said her family was "split in half" by residential schools, after she and two of her siblings were sent to English-language schools in Ontario, and two younger siblings learned French at schools in Quebec.

She was happy with the Pope's apology to Indigenous people in Maskwacis, Alta., which she felt was "very humble and very sincere." But she wants to know what concrete steps will follow.

"What will happen after the apology?" she said. "Is there going to be programs and places we can go for assistance and help to carry on?"

Hundreds gathered outside the basilica in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que., to listen to Francis lead the second mass of his Canadian tour, which he has called a pilgrimage of penance.

Organizers said many of the speakers who delivered readings at the service Thursday were Indigenous, and the Pope's chasuble — the outermost garment worn by Roman Catholic priests during mass — was specially designed by a local Huron-Wendat artist.

Many in the pews were dressed in orange to represent the Every Child Matters movement — remembering the children lost in residential schools and the survivors. Some attendees wore floral scarfs, and elders in wheelchairs sat in a section to the left near the stage.

Louis Joe Bernard, a Mi'kmaq who came from Nova Scotia, said the Pope's visit has stirred emotions but it is beneficial. “I think we need God in our lives and with the Pope here, realizing, acknowledging the harm that was done to the Aboriginal people, I think it is good,” Bernard said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Pope's trip to Canada was a "step toward healing," but acknowledged that some Indigenous leaders want to see Francis go further.

"His Holiness’s message, the church’s message that this is a beginning of a process is encouraging, has been helpful to many in their healing, but there’s a lot of work to do," Trudeau told reporters in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré.

Francis is to leave Quebec City on Friday and make a brief stop in Iqaluit before heading home to Vatican City.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2022. 

— With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal