Invisible voices: Victims of corporal punishment in the 20th century Catholic School System 

Today’s guest author is Linda Kryvoruka

Linda Kryvoruka is a retired Nurse Anesthetist who was always interested in social justice issues relating to disadvantaged populations, victims of wars and genocide, and child advocacy, especially regarding school systems and their methods of enforcing behavior. Linda is an alumnus participating in the Transitioning Justice Lab at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a special focus on carceral spaces and the school-to-prison pipeline. Linda is also now a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Anyone who attended Catholic school during the 1950’s, ‘60s, and ’70s will attest to the fact that no one does better punishment, seclusion, restraint, and isolation techniques better than the Catholic orders of nuns who taught in the catholic school systems across the United States and Canada. The nuns imposed corporal punishment for inattention, failure to do homework, and any misbehavior in their classroom was met with a brutality unknown to most of the outside world. Each nun had her own mysterious criteria for punishment depending on her mood, degree of unhappiness with herself or her class, and the amount of rage built up within her during the school day. The fury was always disproportionate to the crime, resulting in an unstable adult thrusting an unequal power differential upon a young student. The use of physical violence imposed on their children was known to the parents. While not improving test scores or behavior, it taught kids about shame, humiliation, fear, and distrust of authority figures. The nuns acted unchallenged by the parents, the other teachers, and the principal: their authority was the law in their classrooms. 

Today, it is widely documented, studied, investigated, and litigated that many priests in these systems were pedophiles who exploited their positions of religious authority and trust to manipulate adolescent boys who served as altar boys during their masses. No one told these victims’ parents, and most suffered in silence. In fact, most pious, unquestioning parents often invited these same priests and nuns to their homes for Sunday dinner with the family, forcing their children to suffer with their offenders sitting beside them in their homes. Now, despite the Catholic Church paying out millions in settlements, it has been discovered that most offending priests were never disciplined and often were transferred to other parishes where they could inflict the same harm on a new population. 

What effects did these traumatic events, including physical and psychological abuse, have on children and young adults at that time? What trauma would be with them for the rest of their lives? One has to look at sociology journals, educational writings, and the many alum interviews I collected in this research to answer these questions since there is scant information about what the nuns did behind their classroom doors. 

Corporal punishment in the context of academia can be characterized as the intentional infliction of harm through physical and psychological humiliation as a response to undesirable behavior by the students. This included: a nun slapping a student, pulling their hair, beating knuckles with rulers, caning with a yardstick or pointer, throwing them up against the blackboard, throwing them down to the floor on their knees, locking them in a dark coat closet until the end of the school day which was terrifying to young children, refusing to allow the child to go to the bathroom, causing them to wet their pants, and any other public shaming they could think of at that moment. Most victims of these behaviors did not tell their parents, fearing they would receive more discipline at home. The nuns were omnipotent and unchallenged. 

Teacher/nun bullying is rooted in a power differential that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, and causes students great emotional distress. Bullying is so pervasive in Catholic schools that there are specific characteristics to look for: it often involves the public humiliation of the student as it is done before the entire class. Most bullying occurs once the classroom door shuts, so there is no witness except their terrified classmates. There were no consequences to the nuns for these acts. Any notion of a student complaint made them vulnerable to more abuse. Quiet, nervous, and vulnerable students were their target population. Beating, hitting, slapping, or physically attacking students were daily occurrences. Forcing a child to sing out loud in class, sit on the floor, public criticism of a student’s work, and forcing them to bend over and beating them until they (the nuns) were exhausted were typical and have been witnessed by all students and experienced over time. No one left this system unscathed.

Signs of a bullied student are most profound in a bright student who no longer wishes to attend school. Stomach aches, headaches, and other ailments were used by traumatized children afraid to return to school. Many children had behavior changes at home: angry outbursts and temper tantrums before and after school. The child or adolescent suddenly became moody, depressed, angry, withdrawn, or clingy. The child’s grades start dropping, and they would become uninterested in completing the work. Students targeted by the nuns experienced shame, confusion, anger, fear, self-doubt, loss of self-esteem, and overall feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. 

How does this apply to the practices of seclusion and restraint today? The emotional abuse used by the nuns to maintain total control over their students still happens today. Locking young children in dark closets for the entire day, knowing that they were terrified of the dark, along with the physical confinement in a space that limited the child’s freedom in a locked space. The isolation alone became an emotional horror show. The second type of emotional abuse is rejection, refusing to acknowledge a person’s presence, value, or worth; communicating to that person that they are bad, useless, and inferior. Suddenly, no one wants to socialize with that student; he eats alone in the cafeteria. They become an object of shame and ridicule. Once the student is labeled and rejected, long-term emotional damage is done. 

Finally, emotional abuse of children can result in lifelong serious emotional and behavioral problems, including lack of attachment to their parents, the other students, low cognitive ability in someone not previously diagnosed with disabilities, and poor social skills. Even a bright, intelligent child will show a lack of creativity, enthusiasm, and persistence. To a psychologically and emotionally defenseless child, there is no sense of safety, a basic primal need of any human and living being. 

One student, late as an adult who was victimized and bullied all through Catholic School, later stated that she became a victim of the “Stockholm Syndrome,” a psychological condition in which the victims start to bond with their victimizers.

She reflected that this treatment affected every aspect of her life- three abusive marriages, PTSD, chronic unemployment, and panic attacks. Another said that it was the murder of her youth and her self-esteem. 

All children need encouragement, positive feedback, and a sense of safety in their classrooms from teachers, parents, peers, and the community. The moral injury to these students robs them of their own moral identity, without which they cannot become joyful and positive in their own lives. Students who feel safe have a stronger sense of self, are more resilient and are better able to navigate future life challenges. Nurturing any student in an environment of caring and safety is like nurturing a flower and watching it grow. I write this narrative for those students- those invisible voices- so that they may finally reclaim their own.

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