TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses many forms of child abuse.
At St. Clement of Rome elementary school, I made friends with a boy named Brian. He had an mop of unruly blond hair and his teeth seemed too big for his mouth, making him look goofy. I remember black was his favorite color. My peers had unanimously agreed only blue or green were acceptable choices. Secretly, I thought him brave.
One day, Brian got in trouble for talking during a music lesson. Sister Bernadette made us sing church hymns, so no one took it seriously. Music was on the same level as art or gym, which the school drilled into us was not as crucial as English, and the holy of holies, Catechism. No doubt this is why Brian was talking.
We were on the cusp of puberty. It was the time of life where the good opinion of friends was of paramount importance. We noticed the opposite sex wasn’t entirely revolting as they had once been. To be embarrassed was death and everything embarrassed us.
As a punishment, this “bride of Christ” directed Brian to sing the hymn a cappella at the front of the class. He turned beet red and mumbled an apology in a desperate attempt to avoid his impending doom. It didn’t work. The nuns had taught us that only God grants mercy. Inwardly, I cringed because Brian, like me, was one of the worst singers in our grade. I vividly remember judging her punishment as cruel. I prayed Sister would send him back to his seat with a stern warning and a demerit.
Standing in his rumpled school uniform of slacks, white shirt and a clip-on tie, Brian quietly sang the hymn. He was horribly off key. The humiliation was heartbreaking. Sister Bernadette berated him to be louder. As is common for boys that age and at that stage of physical development, his voice cracked. Tears rolled down his cheeks. My heart ached for my friend.
Sister Bernadette had a smile on her face with a look of pure satisfaction. She enjoyed it.
Catholic Child Abuse Ignored
For decades during the 20th century, Catholic schools fostered a culture of abuse. Why is no one demanding accountability?
While the sexual abuse of children is heinous, the sheer number of victims of verbal and emotional abuse is far greater. These other sins also need to be dragged from the darkness of the past. Former students who were victims or witnessed child abuse should demand the Vatican confess their sins and beg forgiveness.
The decades of verbal, emotional and physical abuse potentially affected some 5.2 million US children attending 13,000 Catholic schools in the 1960s alone. Scores of children across the globe have been beaten, berated and humiliated by the clergy — or witnessed such maltreatment — in Catholic educational institutions.
It seems every older adult who was educated in a Catholic school has a story to tell, an experience they have held onto for 40 or 50 years or more. Although accounts of lay teachers abusing children are not as prevalent as those involving the clergy, some did participate.
One example from my own childhood was a teacher who yanked me out of line for committing the sin of talking while students changed classrooms. The teacher was enraged. I don’t remember her name, only that she was a redhead and was frequently angry. She dragged me by my hair into her room and proceeded to tell me how much she disliked me and how I would never amount to anything. I can still recall the pain in my scalp and being emotionally crushed by her words.
Child abuse was a regular occurrence in Catholic schools, it was celebrated as a form of discipline and institutionalized. The public has ignored the lifelong consequences of such a toxic environment. Perhaps this is the result of our low expectations for some measure of remorse from Church leadership in the wake of the organization’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals. Or perhaps the problem was so widespread, we instinctively believe to expose it would be to further victimize millions of former students.
Setting the Tone for Catholic Child Abuse
I entered the parochial school system early as my birthday fell in that no-man’s land of the summer months. I was the youngest and smallest in the class. Kindergarten had been a half day and more like nursery school with plenty of playtime, naps and snacks.
First grade was my initial taste of what lay ahead for me at the hands of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. The first week was my introduction into the Church’s program of child abuse as a form of strict discipline.
Having just turned six the week prior, most of my classmates were a year or two older. I was still struggling with my physical development.
I had problems pronouncing certain sounds, like “U” at the beginning of the word eulogy. My siblings had teased me, so I was sensitive about it and avoided using words I had trouble pronouncing. I have since learned these types of speech problems are common for children.
Catholic education places importance on the ability to not only read, but do it early and fast. They focused on phonics. As part of learning the sound of each letter, the teacher showed each of us a picture and asked us to identify the image. We had to respond with the answer that began with the “M” sound. Sister Mary was in the room observing. This would be my first interaction with a nun.
I was terrified and confused, not understanding why things were so different. I wondered why this was not like Kindergarten with friendly Mrs. Doerr who gave us cookies and read us stories. I didn’t know most of my classmates, so I was in a strange situation surrounded by strange kids.
My turn came and the picture was a mule. I stared at the flash card and did not respond. The teacher stood expectantly holding the card in front of her. I wracked my brain for any other word that began with “M” that could fit. . . monster. . .monkey. . .man. . .
Sister Mary barked at me. “You know what it is. Answer!”
I was trembling and meekly responded, “Mool.”
She was visibly angry with what she likely perceived as insolence, “Say it right.”
I twisted my mouth trying to make the sound. “Moooool.” Please don’t make me cry because these kids will make fun of me.
“Come up here.” She had enough of my shit.
I walked to the front of the class. I faced the big imposing woman with wide hips dressed in a modern habit, a black polyester dress so dark it absorbed everything good including the light.
Bats, bats are black and scary. Witches wear black. So do dead people.
Sister Mary grabbed my shoulders and spun me around to face the now frightened class.
She spanked me as my horrified classmates watched.
I had been designated as the sacrificial lamb to impart an important lesson to the rest of the flock that first week. Do what you are told or this will happen to you. You will obey or else.
“Stand in the hall and think about what you have done.”
She pushed me out the door. I was sobbing and humiliated, left alone and unsupervised. Today, leaving an emotionally distraught child exposed and unattended in an empty hallway would likely end a job — and hitting a child would no doubt bring about the demise of a career.
In Catholic schools, child abuse was preferred.
Was the Decline in Enrollment Due to Catholic Child Abuse?
Enrollment in Catholic Schools experienced a sharp decline beginning in the 1970s. Coincidentally, this was about the same time students who attended in the 1950s prepared to send their own children off to be educated. Falling enrollment is usually attributed to economics and changing demographics. No one admits to any loss of enrollment due to Catholic child abuse in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1965, Catholic institutions educated 89% of American children who were attending private schools. By 2013, that figure had dropped to half. During the previous decade, more than 1,300 schools have been closed or consolidated, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
We will never know much abuse affected declining enrollments, nor is it likely to be revealed by the NCEA. But one thing is certain, many students attending Catholic schools with abusive clergy experienced trauma long after their education ended.
Catholic Child Abuse and Trauma
Most of us recognize the trauma of physical abuse in childhood has a lasting affect on the victim. A 2011 study by Rutgers University showed child abuse leads to increases in rates of depression, anxiety, anger and a host of physical ailments. The CDC and Kaiser studied Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and found the greater number of negative events increased the risk alcoholism, illicit drug use, fetal death, smoking and sexually transmitted diseases — among many others.
It is clear that all forms of abuse, whether it is physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual, can have long-term effects on the victim’s mental health.
It is not widely recognized that children who witness the humiliation or physical abuse of others are also at risk. Former students relate countless stories of abuse by the clergy, some are shocking. They range from extreme amounts of homework such as requiring students to write each missed vocabulary word a hundred times, to humiliation, slaps in the face, forcing children to kneel with their arms outstretched, and using books, rulers and pointers to strike children. For every victim of direct abuse, dozens more witnessed acts of violence and humiliation, incurring trauma indirectly from the abuse of others.
According tochildren are at risk for psychological problems if they witness high levels of conflict and discord, bullying by teachers or experience toxic competitive environments. Children can be victimized indirectly by being present while another child is abused. Known as toxic socialization, it leads to physical, psychological, and emotional debility and dysfunction.
The costs are staggering. The estimated average lifetime cost per victim is $210,012, mostly due to healthcare costs and lost productivity. The Vatican has not addressed the problem much less the cost to society, and likely won’t until victims speak up about the abuse.
Perhaps it is time we had a global dialogue about the Catholic Church making reparations to their victims from their vast accumulation of wealth. Society continues to suffer due to institutionalized Catholic child abuse of the past.