Paedophile priests are not a new phenomenon in the Catholic church, finds Damian Thompson

This is the astonishing story of the suppression of a Catholic teaching order – the Piarists – in the 17th century. It has never been told properly before, because many of the documents containing the juiciest information were heavily classified by the Vatican until six years ago.

In the process of extracting the juice, Karen Liebreich has resisted the temptation to sensationalise, though it would have been easy to do so. For what she discovered after burrowing into the archives of the Holy Inquisition is that St John Calasanz , founder of the Piarists, covered up a child abuse scandal. Indeed, he knowingly promoted a paedophile to high office in the order.

That scandal is only one strand in the story, however. Liebreich’s sources are as rich in incriminating detail as the Watergate tapes: we glimpse not only sexual incontinence but also the politicking and queeny vanity that destroyed an order that was once admired for the purity of its mission. True, the Piarists were eventually revived and are still in existence. But how many people have heard of them? If they had not been suppressed in 1646, they might now be as famous as their rivals, the Jesuits.

Church history often throws up the paradox that strict orders attract decadent personalities. But no one could accuse St John Calasanz of self-indulgence: austere to the point of caricature, this Spanish priest expected his clergy to follow a regime of concentration-camp severity while providing a free education to the poor boys of various Italian cities.

The Piarists were the first order to teach boys for nothing; and they were also the first to tailor their lessons to the needs of their pupils rather than some medieval ideal of learning. In the Piarist schools, boys did calculations involving weights and measures that helped them find jobs in banks and warehouses.

Demand soared, and with it the order’s social ambitions; soon the nobility were sending their children to Piarist schools. Within the order, the pendulum swung back and forth between absurd strictness – one novice was made to scrub his mouth with a pumice stone after being kissed by his mother – and laxity.

The villain of this book, Fr Stefano Cherubini, son and brother of well-connected lawyers, broke every rule with impunity: he had his clerical jacket specially cut “swooping low at the back and rising indecently short at the front”; he refused to wear draughty sandals; and he sang in a forbidden falsetto voice.

He was also a vigorous pederast. When this was pointed out to the authorities, Calasanz was forced to take action. He wrote to the priest conducting the investigation: “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 [in the Vatican], otherwise our organization, which has enjoyed a good reputation until now, would lose greatly.” The report detailing the abuses was supposed to be kept secret from Cherubini, but he managed to intercept it and threatened to sue. Calasanz caved in; Cherubini was made visitor-general for the whole order.

That was in 1629. During the years that followed, the Piarist order became miserably bogged dopwn in Vatican politics. Some of its members adopted the bitchy, high camp style we associate today with extreme Anglo-Catholics. The elderly founder was pushed aside and, with papal approval, the order was placed in the manicured hands of Stefano Cherubini.

Only now did St John Calasanz, aged nearly 90, state publicly what he had known for 15 years: that the new superior was a child-molester. That was not enough to block the appointment, but such was the internal opposition to Cherubini that the order fell apart and the Vatican decided that the best course was to suppress it.

Karen Liebreich has pulled off a difficult trick with this engrossing book. Although the parallels with recent paedophile scandals are inescapable, and she rightly draws our attention to them, she is reluctant to judge historical actors by 21st-century standards of morality. But she does not need to, because the Church at the time had a perfectly clear understanding of the wickedness of child abuse.

Calasanz, the Inquisition and at least one Pope knew that Cherubini had sexually assaulted his pupils and they knew it was wrong; yet the evidence was concealed and he was elevated to positions that offered him fresh opportunities for seduction. Liebreich’s conclusion is the more powerful for its restraint: she says that it is time the modern Catholic Church “took a closer look” at the history of the Piarist order. So it should, but somehow one doubts it will. What is the betting that, in a hundred years’ sime, St John Calasanz will still be the patron saint of Christian schools.

Damian Thompson

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