Saint who covered up for child abusers

The Roman Catholic church’s mishandling of paedophile scandals among its clergy is not a modern phenomenon but has been going on for hundreds of years, a new book, published today, reveals.

It describes how the priest who is the patron saint of Catholic schools covered up sex abuse.

Father Joseph Calasanz, the 17th-century Spanish priest who founded the Piarist Order to educate the children of the poor, remains a revered figure, canonised in 1767, with an elegant statue at St Peter’s in Rome.

Among those educated by the order, which currently has 1,500 priests across the world, have been Goya, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, Victor Hugo, Gregor Mendel and Antonio Gaudi.

But now a British academic has uncovered a secret, hidden for more than three centuries in the Vatican archives: Calasanz, whose order was suddenly and mysteriously shut down for a period by Pope Innocent X in 1646, was guilty, like many since, of suppressing accusations of child abuse against his colleagues.

Karen Liebreich, a Cambridge-educated historian, claims: “The contemporary Catholic church’s practice of moving a suspected paedophile away from the original scene of the crime for fear of ensuing scandal and the backlash clearly has long antecedents.”

Her book, Fallen Order, quotes from a letter Calasanz wrote to the headmaster of one of the order’s schools in Naples in 1631 about a priest accused of abuse: “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, otherwise our organisation, which has enjoyed a good reputation until now, would lose greatly.”

The accused priest, Stefano Cherubini, a member of a well-connected Vatican family, did not hesitate to pull strings with Francesco Albizzi, assessor of the Inquisition, and managed to supplant Calasanz briefly as head of the order.

It was not until 1646 that the complaints against him and other senior Piarist priests became widespread and the order was temporarily closed down.

Calasanz moved priests and even promoted them when claims of abuse were made against them – a system of “promotion for avoidance” the church has practised ever since.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the current leader of the church in England and Wales, was fiercely criticised when he admitted moving a priest who subsequently committed further offences against children. The scandal prompted the church to develop new guidelines for dealing with allegations and with employment of staff.

Pope Innocent’s decision to close the order has usually been explained by its alleged indiscipline, Cherubini’s political machinations, and even the friendship of members with the heretical astronomer Galileo.

But Dr Liebreich’s research and a close analysis of the 10 volumes of letters left by Calasanz, and of the further volumes of correspondence he received, indicate a different story. An even fuller picture might have emerged had another accused priest not burned many of the order’s archives in 1659.

The book states: “Molesting children was a grave misdemeanour then, yet the authorities, despite innumerable protests, did nothing. It can only be that they did not consider abuse of children by a priest to be a matter of enough gravity to prevent that priest becoming universal superior of a teaching order.”

Dr Liebreich said the modern order might be shocked to learn the outcome of her research. But she added: “I am not sure that the Vatican will even read what I wrote.”

John Cornwell, the writer on Catholic affairs, said: “The book seems to me to be an original piece of work. The problem of paedophilia is not as simple as the Pope believes.”

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent.

Back to Fallen Order.

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