Kelly Gerling says he was a Rockhurst High School freshman when he was called to school on a Saturday to work off a discipline demerit — by fighting another student.
It was 1967-68 school year, and Vice Principal Ron Windmueller brought Gerling and another student down into the school basement to receive their “JUG,” or justice under God. There, Gerling says, the boys were required to wrestle as Windmueller shouted, “Hit him, hit him.”
“I can still vividly recall the pain when my fellow student stuck his fingers into the indentations under my ears; the extreme fatigue; the anger at the situation; the humiliating helplessness; the fear of severe injury — neither of us having any choice under the circumstances but to do as Brother Windmueller ordered,” Gerling wrote in a letter to a former Rockhurst High president.
Gerling, now 64, knows that Rockhurst has long abandoned the corporal punishment — paddling, swatting students with sticks, physical intimidation — he says he experienced as a 14-year-old. Any statute of limitations for discipline that might be considered physical abuse has long expired.
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But as the Roman Catholic church finds itself mired in clerical sexual abuse scandals — once again navigating how to publicly apologize and address its failure to protect young and vulnerable people — Gerling wants his alma mater to lead the way in formally renouncing a history of harmful discipline practices that were not covert trangressions but an established part of school culture.
He says it wasn’t enough that the Rev. Terrence A. Baum, a former president of Rockhurst High, sent him a personal note in the spring of 2017.
Nor was the letter from Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, lamenting the abuse Gerling experienced as a boy and inviting Gerling to meet with him.
He wants a public apology extended to the Rockhurst High School community. One that includes both a permanent record and some kind of reparation for the church’s history of corporal punishment, such as Virginia’s resolution disavowing slavery or Boston Archbishop Bernard Law’s plea for forgiveness from sexual abuse victims.
“As with the victims of sexual abuses, this would support healing on the part of many people with painful memories of violence from men from whom they expected love,” Gerling wrote to Johnston in May 2017. “And it would deter further violence against children.”
But Gerling has had little success with his quest, and he says he’s going public with his experiences now not just to hold the church accountable for its own teachings of repentance and asking for forgiveness, but in the hopes that his alma mater might lobby to change state legislation.
Though Jesuit programs have largely eradicated the practice, hitting or striking children as a means of discipline is permitted or not expressly prohibited by state law in Missouri, Kansas and more than a dozen other states.
Rockhurst doesn’t condone it, spokesman Robbie Haden said.
“We take corporal punishment very serious now,” Haden said. “We don’t have anyone in the building that has been accused of corporal punishment.”
But Haden also said that the school has no documentation to suggest it ever used corporal punishment.
That’s frustrating to Gerling, now a Seattle psychologist and leadership coach. He says the corporal punishment is horrifying in part because it was so openly tolerated.
Gerling came to Rockhurst after graduating from the eighth grade at Saint Agnes Catholic School in Roeland Park.
He says he experienced and witnessed discipline that involved both physical abuse and emotional intimidation.
“It was widespread. It was official policy. It was formal,” Gerling told The Star.
He says Coach Al Davis lined up freshman football players and swatted their rear ends with a stick. At least four times Vice Principal Windmueller took Gerling into his office, where he would strike his buttocks with a paddle several times. The pain, Gerling said, was excruciating.
Another time, Windmueller put Gerling’s head into a headlock and slammed it into a locker in the hall outside his office.
A different coach urged students to “twist our cleats when we stepped on the hands of opposing players to break the bones in their hands,” though Gerling said he didn’t know any student athlete who complied with that demand. The school officials he named in his letters have all died.
Some say the church’s accountability for discipline policies of the past is complicated, indelibly linked to an era in which corporal punishment was widely accepted not just in the church but at home and in public schools.
“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,” Katrina Fernandez, an advice columnist for the Catholic news site Aleteia, wrote earlier this year. “Should we expect it from the Church, which must always be held to a wiser, higher standard?”
Even those who have fought to abolish legalized corporal punishment say that institutional apologies, from both public or religious institutions, are rare.
“I am not aware of that ever happening,” said Bob Fathman, the former president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. “Corporal punishment was such an endemic part of education and parenting in the U.S. for generations that as we have evolved away from its use, I think there isn’t a sense of shame and a need to apologize because it was all done within the bounds of the law — unlike sexual abuse, which has always been illegal and hidden from view. “
Baum, the former Rockhurst school president, told Gerling that corporal punishment has not been practiced there since he began his tenure in the 1980s. But he said he had heard stories from alumni about the “physical and possible emotional abuse” from specific Rockhurst teachers and coaches during the time Gerling was there, according to the letter Gerling shared with The Star.
“When asked by alumni, ‘are the students today treated in a manner similar to how we were treated?’ I reply, ‘If by “treated” you mean discipline employing physical and/or emotional abuse, those are simply not tolerated,’” Baum wrote. “As a matter of fact, if they are not to be tolerated today, they should not have been tolerated back when you were a student.”
He apologized on behalf of Rockhurst.
In his own letter, Johnston told Gerling he had offered a broad apology to anyone harmed by someone in the church at a Service of Lament in 2016. But he said he did not intend to offer a public apology.
“It is my belief that you and others with your experiences will be better served by our Diocese offering any spiritual and emotional support to you on an individual basis rather than by another general public apology,” Johnston wrote to Gerling.
He offered to meet with him and directed him to a victims services coordinator. Gerling said he had not yet taken Johnston up on his invitation to meet.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph directed questions to the school. “Rockhurst is an independent Catholic school which does not fall under the direction of the diocese,” Director of Communications Jack Smith said.
Gerling said that the Rev. Carl Kloster, a principal in 1968, requested an exit interview when Gerling opted to attend Bishop Miege High School for his sophomore year. But Gerling said he was afraid of “him and his institution.” Gerling said he lied and told him he wanted to attend high school closer to his home and friends from middle school.
The incident in which Gerling was required to fight stayed with him for years, so much so that Gerling says he called the other student decades later to talk to him about it. The student hadn’t forgotten either.
A public address, Gerling said, would be meaningful to victims.
“Apologies have a purpose,” Gerling said. “They are designed to create a sense of justice and purpose for the victims in terms of healing.”
Haden, the high school’s communications director, said the subject has not been brought up since Baum and Gerling’s exchange last summer. “There’s nobody here from that era,” Haden said. “And there’s nothing documented that we have to go off of.” Haden did not respond to a request for comment from other Rockhurst officials.
Gerling says countless alumni would confirm that corporal punishment was part of the Catholic school culture. School and church leaders could lead efforts to inspire lawmakers to legally eradicate the process, he said, since, depending on the school and the district, some children aren’t protected from what he experienced at Rockhurst.
“It’s still legal to do to kids in Missouri,” he said in an email to The Star, “what Rockhurst did to thousands of children for decades.”