Sins of the fathers

Karen Liebreich invites us to draw comparisons across the centuries with her account of paedophile priests in 17th-century Italy, Fallen Order.

Pope John Paul II has kept noticeably quiet on the subject of Catholic priests who sexually abuse children. But in 2002, after high-profile cases in Europe and the United States, he was moved to acknowledge the problem – briefly.

Paragraph 38 of his annual Holy Thursday letter alluded to priests who succumb to “the most grievous forms of the mysterium iniquitatis [mystery of evil] at work in the world”. Such behaviour puts other priests in a bad light, said the Pope, without mentioning what it does to the victims.

Fallen Order focuses on sexual abuse within a religious order in 17th-century Italy, and the attempts to cover it up. The book invites us to draw comparisons across the centuries, and it is infuriating to see how little the rhetoric of the Catholic Church has changed in these matters. Its aim can still seem to be to make abuse less terrible by couching it in euphemisms, especially Latin ones, then attributing it to outside forces, rather than to the criminal behaviour of a responsible adult.

The Piarists began as a religious order dedicated to teaching poor children. A Spaniard, Jose Calasanz, founded the first Pious school in 1597, in Rome, at a time when free education barely existed. The order exists to this day, although now its schools are more exclusive. Past pupils include Mozart, Goya, Haydn, Victor Hugo – and Egon Ronay.

In marked contrast to the Jesuits, Piarists taught in the vernacular, not Latin, and over philosophical mathematics they favoured “abbaco”, or mercantile arithmetic. Children learned how to calculate the interest on loans, exchange rate mechanisms and geometry. Calasanz hoped that these skills would help them to find jobs “in banks, in warehouses, in counting houses and in other trades”.

Not only were his teaching methods innovative, but Calasanz’s staff included some of the great men of the time, including Ventura Sarafellini, the calligrapher who created the inscription “Tu Es Petrus” around the inner ring of the cupola of St Paul’s. Calasanz also knew Pope Gregory’s barber and doctor, and found them useful intermediaries.

Even Galileo became involved with the Piarists when a group of scientifically minded priests was sent to start a Pious school in Florence. Their espousal of his heliocentric theory, at a time when Galileo was falling foul of the Inquisition, was to prove very dangerous for the order.

Alongside their modern teaching methods, Piarist brothers practised an austere Christianity. They wore horse-hair habits and were expected to eat little and badly. Calasanz was so dedicated to discomfort that he ate his meals with one foot lifted in the air, “to suffer even while eating”, or lay on the floor and made the other brothers trample him on their way to the refectory. Piarists were not allowed to swim, play the guitar or kiss their mothers. They were never supposed to be alone with a pupil.

Its austerity notwithstanding, the movement grew quickly, with schools opening across Italy (including one at the summit of Vesuvius, which was promptly swallowed up by the volcano). By the 1630s the expansion was so rapid that Calasanz wished he had another 10,000 teachers to meet the demand for new schools. Yet by 1646 the order was discredited, and banned by Pope Innocent X. What had happened, in one decade, to quash such a flourishing movement? (It was only restarted at the end of the 17th century.)

The reason given at the time was “internal dissent”, but Karen Liebreich stumbled on what she felt to be the real answer while researching a doctorate on public education in a musty Florentine archive. Calasanz is the patron saint of Catholic schools, and Liebriech had been dutifully wading through his 4,869 letters – not a joke among them, she notes grimly – when she came across the telling euphemism: il vitio pessimo – “the worst sin”.

Liebreich took that nugget and sniffed out more information at the Vatican Secret Archive, fortifying herself with tax-free coffee (delicious, apparently). When the Inquisition Archive finally opened to the public in 1998, she went there too.

The story that Liebreich can now unravel is as racy and full of machinations as The Name of the Rose. We learn about the sinister Father Gavotti, who wore gold-trimmed stockings under his habit, and whose paedophile tendencies, said a contemporary, caused “a terrible stench to everyone nearby”. There is nasty Mario Sozzi, who shopped his enemies to the Inquisition, and was struck down by a kind of leprosy. His treatment involved being wrapped naked in the still pulsating body of a recently slaughtered ox. Sozzi died anyway – but his colleagues enjoyed eating the ox.

The real villain of the piece is Stefano Cherubini, headmaster of the Naples school, who threatened to destroy the order if allegations of his abuse of children were made public. Cherubini was the son and brother of powerful papal lawyers, so Calasanz pandered to him, promoting Cherubini away from the scene of his crime. “Your reverence’s sole aim,” he wrote to a colleague, “is to cover up this great shame in order that it does not come to the notice of our superiors.”

This is where Liebreich’s rattling good story becomes also an indictment of the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to priests who harm children. She gives a chapter’s worth of examples, including our own Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, who in 2002 appointed a priest he knew was suspected of paedophile activities to the position of chaplain at Gatwick, where he still had access to children. The cardinal blamed his own “naivety and ignorance”, an excuse Liebreich shows to be very well-worn.

Fallen Order is meticulously researched and beautifully written, with some splendid vignettes of life in 17th-century Italy, at the time of the plague, and of Galileo’s discoveries. However, Liebreich does get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of her story. We learn a good deal about who did what to whom, when and how. The most interesting questions – why do so many Catholic priests interfere with children? Why does their church not take the problem more seriously? – could have done with more attention.

Liebreich argues that it is possible to compare attitudes to paedophilia then and now. There is no question, she says, of imposing “an alien and modern morality on an earlier period with a different scale of ethics”. And yet there is at least one clear difference. Priests knew that it was wrong to abuse children, but only in so far as it affected their own souls. There was apparently no concern about the damage done to children. Even the father who wrote to Calasanz complaining that his son had been molested in the lavatories was prepared to leave him at the school.

Contrary to what is suggested on its dust jacket, Fallen Order is mostly not about paedophilia. On the evidence Liebreich herself presents, the Piarists were finished off by more than sex scandals even if, as she says, they constituted a “destabilising secret” at the heart of the organisation.

The order’s real problem was a lack of powerful backers in a country where family connections counted for everything. Cherubini’s behaviour was damaging, but so too was the connection with Galileo and the enmity of the Jesuits. Pope Innocent X, who banned the order, had a personal grudge against Calasanz, who had once slighted his sister-in-law.

Liebreich’s publishers have focused on the sex, and who can blame them? Notoriety sells. Apparently the Vatican shop does a brisk trade these days in mouse-pads bearing Galileo’s signature.

Miranda France’s Don Quixote’s Delusions is published by Orion. Miranda France.

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