Review: History: Fallen Order by Karen Liebreich

Father José de Calasanz, who founded the first school of the Piarist Order in 1597, was made the patron saint of schools and education by the Pope in 1948. He might just as well be patron saint of the cover-up for, back in the 17th century, he “was covering up child abuse in his own schools”. Writing to a father in his order who was investigating rumours of sodomy at one of the schools, Calasanz boldly stated his position: “I want you to know that Your Reverence’s sole aim is to cover up this great shame in order that it does not come to the notice of our superiors.” Thus Calasanz set the pattern for the Catholic Church’s approach to the problem of priestly pederasty through the succeeding centuries.

Karen Liebreich has spent several years poring over documents in the archives of the Piarist Order and the Vatican, and has traced the shameful story of how an idealistic enterprise was torn apart by administrative incompetence and what she calls “a destabilising secret at the heart of the order”.

The order’s first school was in a Roman slum, where Calasanz educated poor children at his own expense. He soon found larger premises, attracted municipal grants, recruited priests to teach 1,200 pupils, acquired a cardinal protector and secured papal patronage. At its height, the order had 36 schools in six European provinces.

Pious and ascetic, Calasanz was, however, an appalling judge of character, and all the order’s good work was overshadowed by the antics of a few troublemaking priests who preferred luxurious ways and carnal pleasures. In 1629, allegations of pederasty were made against Father Stefano Cherubini, head of the Neapolitan school, but Cherubini, a nobleman with direct access to the Pope, denied the charges and threatened to cause a scandal. Instead of pursuing the matter, Calasanz decided to keep Cherubini away from boys by promoting him to the post of visitor general for the order.

One reads Liebreich’s vigorous account of the order’s downward spiral with mounting disbelief, though with immense admiration for her calm sense of perspective. She rightly counsels against applying too much of a modern sensibility to this question of pederasty. Sodomy was “the worst vice”, but child abuse was thought to be no worse than homosexuality or even non-procreational heterosexuality,and the damaging effects on the child were scarcely considered alongside the damage done to the soul of the perpetrator or the general reputation of the Church.

Calasanz was replaced as governor in 1643 by Mario Sozzi, who turned a blind eye to further complaints about “wicked practices”; he, in turn, was succeeded by the archpederast Cherubini, causing a constitutional crisis because so many Piarists wanted nothing to do with him. Pope Innocent X finally despaired of the situation and the order was shut down in 1646. Both Sozzi and Cherubini suffered horrible deaths from a virulent skin disorder similar to leprosy, while Calasanz outlived them, dying in 1648 at the age of 91, “his order suppressed and dishonoured”.

Christopher Sylvester

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