A group of Roman Catholic priests pledged Monday to pay $100 million in reparations to Black descendants of those enslaved over the next three to five years.
The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States has committed to raising the funds and donating them to a foundation for slave descendants, The Guardian reports.
Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a worldwide order of more than 16,000 Roman Catholic priests. It is the Catholic Church’s largest male religious order. The Jesuit Conference is an administrative arm of the five Jesuit provinces in the U.S. and Canada.
Father Tim Kesicki, President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said the endowment aims to start the atonement for slavery, a trade in which the Catholic Church engaged for more than 100 years. Jesuits used proceeds from forced labor and human slave trafficking to support clergy and bankroll churches and schools.
“Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back,” Kesicki said in a statement. “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.”
In 1838, Jesuit owners who ran Georgetown University sold 272 men, women and children to a Louisiana plantation owner. They used the profits to pay off debt and save the private Washington, D.C., university from a financial collapse.
The Georgetown Memorial Project researches to find out who was sold as part of the school’s 1838 episode of slave trafficking. The nonprofit has identified about 5,000 descendants of laborers enslaved by the Jesuits.
Isaac Hawkins was one of the people sold by the Georgetown Jesuits in 1838. Joseph Stewart is among more than 1,000 of Hawkins’ descendants. Stewart is also acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, the nonprofit that will administer the funding from the Catholic order.
The pledge, if fulfilled, would represent the Catholic Church’s most substantial contribution toward racial healing and one of largest efforts to for reckoning for slavery by any institution.
“For more than 400 years, our country has denied the persistent human destruction caused by slavery and the conscious and unconscious racism that divides our communities and nation,” Stewart said.
The Jesuits have already deposited $15 million into the fund and plan to contribute another $85 million over the next three to five years. Both Stewart and Kesicki agreed that the long-term goal is to raise $1 billion for descendants of slavery.
The plan is to use half of the funds each year on grants for organizations dedicated to racial reconciliation efforts. A quarter will fund school scholarships and educational grants for slave descendants and some of the endowment will go toward medical needs for old or sick descendants, The Guardian reported.
The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation has also set up a trust with JPMorgan Chase. The banking company will advise descendants on financial planning and render other services as part of the the partnership.
JPMorgan Chase benefitted from slavery as well, according to the foundation. When the Jesuits at Georgetown University sold the 272 enslaved Africans to plantation owners in 1838, Citizens Bank of New Orleans used the enslaved as human collateral. JPMorgan Chase later acquired the bank.
In Monday’s statement, the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation described its partnership with the Jesuit Conference as a “landmark undertaking” and said it is the “largest known association of descendants of enslaved ancestors and descendants of the enslavers.” Stewart said the move will help right the “400 years of human misery that slavery caused on both the conscious and unconscious” levels.
“After 182 years, descendants and Jesuits have come together in the spirit of truth, racial healing and reconciliation,” Stewart indicated, “uniquely positioning the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation to set an example and lead America through dismantling the remnants of slavery and mitigating the presence of racism. Our partnership will pursue and support the creation of a new and abiding reality of love and justice for all members of our one humanity.”
Villanova University assistant professor Shannen Dee Williams applauded the endowment as an “important step forward” and told The Guardian that she fully supported the efforts toward atonement. But she cautioned against pardoning the Catholic church completely now for its role in the American slave trade.
“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, colonization, slavery and segregation,” Williams said.