Priest who developed the art of cover-up

IN 1819, Francisco di Goya unveiled his latest portrait: Last Communion of Calansz depicts an elderly cleric on his knees in church, preparing to receive the communion host while a group of schoolboys look on. Goya painted a halo above the elderly priest, but the man shows none of the serenity sanctity bestows. His hollowed-out face looks skeletal – and haunted.

Perhaps Goya, working more than 100 years after his subject’s death, had heard the rumours surrounding Fr Jose de Calansz: the priest, canonised in 1767, was indeed haunted by a dark secret. For decades, the Spanish-born founder of the Piarist order, famed for bringing free education to generations of poor children, had concealed a succession of child-abuse cases involving priests in his order.

His cover-up – for fear of “giving scandal” – would be replicated (and amplified) by churchmen in the 20th century; and against this background of contemporary abuse, Karen Liebreich’s new book, Fallen Order, despite its 17th-century context, takes on a creepy relevance.

Like so much evil, Calansz’s mission had begun with a glorious ideal. Arriving in Rome in 1593 as a humble Spanish priest, Father Jose had what today we would call a social conscience. He walked the streets of Rome, and instead of seeing the glorious makeover it was receiving at the hands of Baroque sculptors and architects, he had eyes only for the poor.

In particular, Calansz felt for their children, who ran about the streets in rags, pickpocketing or begging. In those days, even the most modest school charged a nominal fee – thus automatically excluding the poorest families. Calansz took over a school in Trastevere, the poorest district, cleaned it, refurbished it and began taking in local boys (with rare exceptions only boys were educated in the 17th century), refusing any fee. The school proved a resounding success, and soon Calansz was exporting its model around the country (and later around Europe). It was to staff the new schools that he founded the Piarist Order.

The Spanish priest’s project was humane, and far more revolutionary for its time than the author Karen Liebreich perhaps allows. But, tragically, it led to disaster. The man to whom scores of boys (including Goya, Mozart, Schubert and others) would owe their education, and who would brave the Vatican’s wrath by supporting Galileo against the Inquisition, proved a coward when it came to his own priests. Liebreich, in a compelling investigation, unearths letters and records that prove how a number of Piarists were accused by schoolboys’ parents and even by local authorities of molesting their charges – only to find, in Calansz, a ready apologist. The Piarists’ venerable leader would simply move the accused from the school where he had blotted his copybook to another, far afield.

Calansz’s misplaced indulgence meant that one particular priest, Father Stefano Cherubini, scion of an influential Roman family, was not only moved (again and again, since rumours of his paedophile tendencies kept surfacing) but actually promoted, so as to put him out of direct contact with young boys. Cherubini ended up as head of the Piarist Order.

To the shame of the Catholic Church, Calansz’s strategy of moving rather than ousting paedophile priests became the favoured modus operandi for senior clerics 400 years later. Karen Liebreich believes that if the patron saint of free Christian education had been more honest, his successors would have been better equipped to deal with the cases of child abuse that emerged in the 1990s among Catholic orders in America, Britain, Ireland and elsewhere.

Perhaps – but clerical abuse of children raises not only issues of transparency but of priorities: surely the needs of an innocent child should be placed above those of a paedophile priest? Incredibly, for many senior churchmen, 400 years ago and today, the answer is no. Understanding why will take more than an investigation into the past; it calls for a far-reaching reform of contemporary practice.

Christina Odone.

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