by Robert Herold & r & These days it isn't at all fashionable, let alone politically correct, to rise to the defense of the Catholic Church. After all, we don't want to suggest that any of the dozens of people claiming to have been sexually molested all those years ago might be viewing the Church as, say, a target of opportunity. Likely the Church won't even pursue a suspect, if for no other reason than if word leaks that the clerical leadership is trying attack those who claim to be victims, the fallout in public opinion would be even more devastating than the charge itself.

That's why so few are willing to defend Father Joseph Weitensteiner and the staff at Morning Star Boys Ranch from the recent charges being levied against them. Weitensteiner has devoted more than half a century to Morning Star Boys Ranch and the boys who lived there. As the organization's mission statement reads, those boys are "dependent, neglected, pre-delinquent." In other words, these aren't kids who love their parents, have lots of friends and are getting ready to head off to Stanford. These are boys who fall into the category of "troubled." Now, after all these years of working with troubled boys, he finds himself, at age 77, under attack for -- what?

No, not sexual abuse. No, indeed. We have moved on now to physical abuse. What we used to call "corporal punishment." First off, anyone over age 60 (or maybe even a tad under age 60) has stories to tell of being on the bad end of such punishment, meted out by "agents of the institution" (e.g. teachers), or punishment known about by the institution and ignored. Indeed, for those of us born before "child development" replaced "spare the rod and spoil the child," institutionalized corporal punishment was, for decades, pretty much taken for granted. You learned to duck.

I know that I have my stories: I grew up in a Navy family. We moved around a lot -- at the time of my dad's death, my mother calculated that as a "Navy wife," she had moved more than 30 times. When I was in the third grade at the Southern California Military Academy. I was a day student, and every morning on the school bus, the high school kids (aka "the big kids") would take turns beating me over the head with their books. I hadn't done anything to deserve this treatment other than stand in front of our house waiting to be picked up. My mother, who was paying the pricey tuition bill each month on a lieutenant commander's salary, insisted that the bus driver pick me up in front of our house because she didn't want her 8-year-old standing out on a highway. But our house was located on a dead-end street, and the driver didn't much care to do this because he had to negotiate a U-turn. He would grumble, and the whacking would begin, all while the driver egged them all on.

When we lived in Boston, my parents enrolled me at Dexter. There, the rich boarding school kids (JFK was Dexter's most famous graduate) would beat me up, daily -- and, yes, the school staff knew what was going on. But, after all they apparently decided, boys must learn to be men. Every night, my dad would show me wrestling holds in preparation for the next day's combat.

I attended six different schools in three cities during my last six years of middle school and then high school. I can report that every teacher at John Clarke Middle School in Newport, R.I. (a public school, mind you) wielded a paddle. If you were caught talking, chewing or just spacing out, you were called up to the front of the room and ordered to assume the position. One teacher, whom we kids all regarded as unusually sadistic, used an arrow -- more torque.

Oh, yes, and right next to John Clarke, on the other side of the chain linked fence, was our local parochial school. The nuns would yank away from the fence any of their kids caught talking to us heathens. Ears would be "boxed" (another term the older set will recall). Hair might even be pulled. The nuns were looking for what might be called a "quick turnaround."

Were there such goings on at Morning Star Boys Ranch? I'd be very surprised if there weren't. When my father progressed through the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-1930s, plebes were hauled out of the sack in the early morning hours and led down to the Severn River where, in bare feet, they were made to "run the sea wall." These are the same guys who later won World War II. This form of hazing was still going on into the mid-'70s. My point is that the charges of physical abuse being leveled at Morning Star and Father Weitensteiner are ahistorical. They ignore context. They're unwarranted and destructive.

That spanking, smacking, "ear boxing," hair pulling, even hazing -- all that bad stuff so many of us all routinely experienced decades ago -- have largely been discredited and discarded should offer us some hope that perhaps we have become a tad more enlightened over the years.

Father Weitensteiner unnecessarily holds himself accountable for not having had sufficient prescience completely to transcend his generation's biases, dogmas and disciplinarian formulas. He labored long and hard in the trenches, trying to heal social dysfunction. To deconstruct recent history at his expense is unnecessarily destructive.

Americans and the Holocaust @ Gonzaga University

Mondays-Fridays, 3-8 p.m. and Saturdays, Sundays, 1-5 p.m. Continues through Oct. 6
  • or