Brothers David and Art Chartrand, both 1970s graduates of Rockhurst High School, are on opposite sides of a roiling debate over their alma mater.
The disagreement is about another alumnus, Kelly Gerling, who asked the school for a public apology for the use of corporal punishment when he attended Rockhurst in the 1967-68 school year.
Though the practice has been eradicated in Catholic schools for decades, Gerling said in a story in The Star this week that a public apology is the only way to help people heal. And he called for the church to campaign to end corporal punishment in the 19 states, including Missouri and Kansas, where it is still legal.
But when Gerling shared his quest, the conversation inflamed those who questioned why a private school with a history of academic and athletic excellence should publicly apologize for discipline it no longer practices, igniting debates on social media.
“Gerling should expend his energy on dealing with real abuse, not whining about a tough but excellent high school education where he was treated like a young man and not a helpless butterfly,” Art Chartrand, an attorney who graduated from Rockhurst in 1976, told The Star.
His older brother, David, who graduated in 1971, also phoned The Star, saying he was glad to see Gerling’s experiences publicly aired, calling corporal punishment “despicable then and despicable now.”
“They should apologize,“ said David Chartrand, a Kansas City-based journalist specializing in public health and mental health issues. “They should be groveling with regret and embarrassment.”
Gerling told The Star he was a 14-year-old Rockhurst student when he was forced to wrestle another student to work off a discipline demerit, paddled on the rear end multiple times and slammed into a wall by a vice principal. He left the school after his freshman year and spent his remaining high school years at Bishop Miege High School.
In 2017, he wrote to then-principal Terrence Baum, as well as Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, to share his experiences and ask the school and the church to issue formal apologies for discipline practices that he considers physical abuse.
He said Rockhurst could take steps to acknowledge and apologize what he views as violence against children, as the church has apologized for and publicly acknowledged sexual abuse.
Both men apologized in letters to Gerling but said they did not plan to address past practices publicly.
“There seems to be a failure of understanding that what was accepted as teaching a tool fifty years ago cannot be used to condemn those involved using the norms of today,” said Gary Christian, who graduated in 1970.
To some, the slightest suggestion that the church bears equal responsibility for physical discipline and sexual abuse is demeaning to abuse victims. Art Chartrand considers sexual abuse by the Catholic church to be a “holocaust” for which popes and Catholic bishops bear eternal responsibility.
By contrast, he credits swats, wrestling classes and authoritarian priests for “making me tough, making me smart and able to deal with the real world.”
He does not consider the discipline he experienced at Rockhurst to be abuse.
“Young men need discipline,” he said in an email. “Some of us still believe that some physicality is important. … not abuse, not injury —never!”
That discipline, belonging to a “different time and a different era,” was not damaging, he said.
“Getting your butt kicked at football practice seemed light stuff to most of us. We sat through military draft night. We saw some of our brothers and cousins go off to an ungodly war. But most of us were privileged and safe and we damn well knew it.”
Gerling said his critics are missing the point, incorrectly presuming that he wants a “personal apology for personal healing.” He believes an “effective institutional public apology” could inspire changes in state and national laws that could protect children in the future.
“I don’t know if it would help,” David Chartrand said of a public apology. “But it’s appropriate. It’s right.”
Alumnus Joe Donnelly, now a senior executive vice president at Lockton Companies, also said could agree with a push to change corporal punishment laws.
“If Kelly’s intent is to get the state of Missouri to acknowledge it, I have no problem with that,” Donnelly said.
But the 63-year-old said putting Rockhurst on the hook for changing legislation primarily affecting public schools isn’t fair. He says Baum and Johnston took an appropriate response to Gerling’s concerns by addressing them privately.
“Not only was that accepted by the school, it was accepted by the parents and it was accepted behavior for the students,” Donnelly said of “swats” and “jugs” (a common Catholic school term derived from the Latin word for “yoke”). “In those days it made perfect sense.”
Corporal punishment was not a transgression, he said, but a societal norm that fell out of favor in Catholic schools
“That’s why I’m so against the public apology. … It hasn’t happened for 40 years,” he said.
Gerling, now a Seattle psychologist, says he has no regrets about going public with his story, even if it did prompt nasty voicemails and online vitriol. He said he received messages of support from alumni who also shared experiences they found humiliating.
And he told The Star he has been communicating with Johnston about whether the diocese will become involved in adding corporal punishment and physical abuse to the other abuses the church works to condemn and end.
He said he remains dedicated to ensuring that “physical abuses against children that have been or are legally practiced in our country’s schools, and even in homes, will become universally unthinkable.”