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Should the Church apologize for past use of corporal punishment in Catholic schools?


Michael 1951 | CC BY 2.0

Katrina Fernandez - published on 01/11/18

Many Catholics carry old wounds from a time when the culture was very different.
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Dear Katrina,

Has there been any attempt on Aleteia to address the pain expressed by Catholics who suffered abuse [in the form of corporal punishment] at Catholic schools? It would appear that some these stories are PTSD stories from decades ago. Are these people disposable Catholics?

Not necessary a fun or happy fact, but a reality of the past which seems to still be with us today.

Happy New Year,

Dave S.


Dear Dave,

Much has been discussed on the painful topic of sexual abuse, both here, at Aleteia, and in the general media, due largely to the pope’s outspoken advocacy for the victims. Perhaps it could seem like victims of other types of abuse have been largely ignored, since it’s the tragic cases of sexual abuse that get the most attention. But I assure you, no one is a disposable Catholic.  

Related: Sex Abuse Survivors on the Road to Recovery

We’ve all heard anecdotes about Catholic school children being smacked with rulers by a stern “Sister Mary Frowns A Lot.” I personally know a handful of self-professed ex-Catholics who cite the cruelty they endured as children at the hands of Catholic educators as the reason they no longer identify as Catholic, or with any religion at all, for that matter. We don’t like it, of course, and it is a denigrating insult to the hundreds of thousands of fine religious sisters and brothers who have taught generations of Catholics, but there is a reason the stereotype of the ruler-wielding nun is so common: there used to be some truth to it.  

Then again, the stereotype belongs to an era where corporal punishment was more common everywhere, including in public schools. Both Winston Churchill and the actor David Niven wrote about cruel headmasters who caned and humiliated them as students.

To have an honest conversation about physical abuse in Catholic educational institutions, we need to at least recognize that corporal punishment was, until very recently, considered a normal part of child-rearing. Research conducted in the past decades regarding the psychological damage that physical punishment can cause has hugely impacted our understanding and that has been reflected in all of our school systems, as well as in our homes. Teachers no longer have the authority to spank and physically reprimand students. Anti-bullying campaigns have taught us that humiliation is not an effective form of punishment.   

In his Letter to Children, Pope John Paul II wrote, “children suffer many forms of violence from grown-ups … How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown-ups.” His words reflected the better-understanding that grew through the later part of the 20th century.

If you look at the overall environment of all  types of educational systems prior to the 1980s, you’ll find that physical punishment was a common, and unfortunate, response to bad behavior. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 40 who couldn’t commiserate with their own shared experiences of heavy handed teachers. Even I, in my (public school) youth, endured abuses. I was spanked, smacked, yanked around by my hair, given hot sauce to drink. In one particularly humiliating experience, I was forced to balance encyclopedias on my head while I squatted in front of the whole class.   

My point here is not to minimize the physical abuse that others have endured, but simply to provide some context. Perhaps the pain of corporal punishment was more profoundly felt in the Catholic educational system because it was doled out from hands that we were supposed to trust, and people who — given their vows — were supposed to be holy. A friend of mine has recalled seeing a teaching sister take both fists to the back of a classmate in the early 1960s. “He was a troublemaker,” she recalled, “but Sister just lost it, and the whole class was cowed by her frustrated response to him. But when I look back on it, I realize she had 53 students in that class. Back then, there were no teacher’s aides, and I can’t even imagine trying to teach that many kids by oneself.”

That’s not an excuse, obviously, for Sister “losing it.” Her action must have terrified the class, and perhaps it impacted the faith of a lot of young souls.  I can understand why this could cause an aversion to the Church and organized religion in some adults.

But this  isn’t rational thinking. Teachers are humans but do not represent education as a whole or even the whole system itself. Nuns too are human, and a few abusive ones do not represent the whole of Catholic education or the Church.  

Those days of physical punishment are gone. The modern school is a very different place from when you are I were students. The culture is not what it was, and old generations more familiar with corporal punishment have passed. Accountability is real. Once upon a time, if a kid told parents of a teacher striking a student, many of the parents would assume it was deserved. They might even dole out a smack of their own to the disgraced child. Despite the anecdotes I’ve heard of “mean nuns,” I send my son to Catholic high school with confidence in the education he is receiving.

Should the Church apologize?

It is a great shame that some have abandoned their faith due to the disillusionment caused by religious teachers of the past. Would an institutional apology help? We don’t expect public school systems and school board administrators to publicly apologize for the ways things were done decades ago, or beg forgiveness from former students. Should we expect it from the Church, which must always be held to a wiser, higher standard?

These are fair questions, but not without controversy. In 2011, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond spoke out against corporal punishment in schools. Remarking on the “paddling” policies of one isolated Catholic school in his diocese — the only one still continuing the practice — Aymond said paddling “institutionalizes violence, runs counter to Catholic teaching and good educational practice, and violates local archdiocesan school policy.”

Surprisingly, some parents, alumni, and even some students disagreed with him.

Some may say yes, that the church should formally apologize to traumatized students, and I suspect that response is rooted in pain and deep hurt. Perhaps this is a dialogue that should be taken up by the bishops. But my first advice for these wounded Catholics would be to seek professional counseling, as I would suggest for anyone who feels they are suffering from PTSD, instead of waiting for the Church to make formal remarks.    

Counseling and talking about the issues — as you have prompted me to do — is a good road to healing. I encourage anyone who is suffering to seek the help they need to get closure. Carrying around past pain and hurt is physically and spiritually corrosive.  

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