Saturday Telegraph, Arts Magazine 5 May 2004

Scandal in the Piarist Order

Claudia FitzHerbert reviews Fallen Order by Karen Liebreich

“Paedophile priest protected by Catholic hierarchy.” It is the oldest story, and the newest. Why is this? I have always assumed that the answer, at least in part, lies in the ambiguity of the Church’s relationship to secular authority. If a priest has confessed and repented his crime – and there can be no repentance if there is any intention of re-offending – then why would a bishop turn him over to a cruel and ineffective penal system presided over by a godless state? Bishops who flout the law on this may be wrong to do so, but their behaviour is hardly surprising, given their beliefs.

Fallen Order somewhat undoes this theory. Karen Liebreich has waded though boxes of previously unavailable archives to tell the story of the Piarist Order, founded in Rome in 1622 by a Spaniard, Father José de Calasanz, who had opened one school in a Roman slum and was eager to open more. By 1646, when the order was suppressed by Pope Innocent X, there were 40 Piarist schools all over Europe.

As educationalists, the Piarists were, in many ways, revolutionary. They alarmed a number of vested interests with their insistence on teaching useful skills such as writing and arithmetic to poor boys without payment. And Calasanz, despite his religious conservatism, went out of his way to offer support to the disgraced Galileo. He also went out of his way to protect two priests in particular – Fathers Alacchi and Cherubino – from frequent accusations of evil practices, sometimes with the novices but more often with the pupils in their care.

Alacchi was promoted and sent on several pilgrimages, while Cherubino was appointed visitor general of the order. An investigation somehow delivered straight into the hands of the culprits: Cherubino threatened to sue, Calasanz caved in. That, at least, was the father general’s story when, 15 years later, he was provoked by Cherubino’s promotion to the top job into revealing what he knew of his child-molesting past. It has the stench of bad faith. There is no question, here, of priests striving against their carnal desires, being shriven and starting over. The consistent shrillness of the wrongdoers’ denials to Calasanz tells us that, as far as the father general was concerned, these were unrepentant sinners that he promoted beyond scandal’s reach.

There is no mention, in any of the correspondence quoted by Liebreich, of the effect on the child victims of the priests’ prattica cattiva. The reputation of, first, the order and, then, the Church was at stake. The victims could not have mattered less. It should, perhaps, be said that the Piarists were re-established as a teaching order by the end of the 17th century and have not been named in any child-abuse scandals since. But nor has there been any formal expression of regret for what happened in the 1630s. Calasanz was canonised in 1797, and appointed patron saint of all Christian schools in 1948.

Liebreich’s tone, despite the sensationalist nature of her material, is sober and detached. There is little speculation – too little, arguably, insofar as Calasanz never really emerges from the shadows. Of course, there is no telling what anyone’s like, really, but isn’t it part of the historian’s job to chance the odd suggestion?

His more villainous underlings are painted in bolder colours, thanks mainly to the indignant descriptions of their waywardness by contemporary observers. I particularly enjoyed the early give-away signs of their unfitness for office: Cherubino refused from day one to put up with the draughty sandals ordained by the order’s rules, while one of his most powerful protectors was well known for having secret hoards of marzipan and crystallised ginger in his cell.

Father Alacchi, at least, seems to have struggled with his demons: in the school that he founded in Venice, Alacchi had two huge nails fixed in the wall, “between which he could stand in a Christ-like position for hours trying to overcome the temptations of the devil, and shouting to Satan to ‘Go to hell, and leave me alone.’

Claudia FitzHerbert.

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