Karen Liebreich in conversation with John Reed

In 1646, the Piarist Order, which had introduced education to the masses—and not only an education in Latin but also an education in basic reading and arithmetic—was disbanded by Pope Innocent X. The order had succumbed to myriad sexual abuse charges that had been buried by the founder of the order, Jose de Calasanz (who has since been named the patron saint of Catholic schools). The scandal, largely lost to history, and the subject of a massive suppression by the Roman Catholic Church, has been painstakingly reconstructed by Karen Liebreich’s Fallen Order. The work painfully establishes the inability of the Roman Catholic Church to put its children before itself; even today, the reforms of the Church are hardly impressive. In recent weeks, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn introduced a sexual abuse hotline—although the hotline is manned by its own lawyer.

John Reed of the Brooklyn Rail sought out Karen Liebreich for a discussion about the four-hundred-year-old travesty and its implications today.

John Reed (Rail): Over the centuries, how much evidence of these crimes was destroyed by the Roman Catholic Church? What was the quality of that evidence? Important?

Karen Liebreich: By definition, we do not know how much evidence was destroyed over the centuries. In the case of this particular order, there are several areas where I know material is missing. After the initial allegations about the activities of a headmaster, Father Stefano Cherubini, another Piarist teacher, Father Garzia, was sent to Naples in 1629 to interrogate the school’s teachers and boys. He compiled a dossier of the evidence, which, given the reaction of Father Stefano when it fell into his hands, must have been damning. Father Stefano grabbed the dossier and took it to his brother, the important lawyer at the Vatican, and it has never been seen since. Calasanz told Garzia to destroy all his letters and any other correspondence that mentioned this scandal. He obviously failed to destroy everything, since I have copies of these letters, but nevertheless he probably did destroy a great deal.

In 1659, thirteen years after the suppression, one of Father Stefano’s closest colleagues, Father Glicerio Cerrutti, also a man with a very dubious reputation, built an enormous bonfire out of any incriminating material. Given what I found anyhow, just think what I might have found had that material remained in existence.

Why was there no material in the Inquisition archive? From the archive of the order I found instructions and correspondence from the Inquisition and correspondence to the Inquisition, but in the Inquisition itself—nothing. It could, of course, be that the material has been lost in the destruction of the centuries, or that it is misfiled, or that I simply didn’t spend enough time in the archive, but at any rate, such indexes do exist, and such sources as I consulted had no record of any material concerning the Piarist order. Given that the Piarists were suppressed as a result of investigations led by the Inquisition assessor Francesco Albizzi—unprecedented legally and shocking—and that the founder was arrested by the Inquisition and then subjected to house arrest, it is strange that there is absolutely no record.

So, who knows how much evidence was destroyed, or what its true quality. But important material was certainly destroyed, and destroyed in a deliberate attempt to cover up the evidence. This is true in the particular case I studied, and I think one can safely extrapolate that it will be true for other instances through the centuries.

Rail: There’s a blurb on your book from Kirkus: “Cover-ups never work.” Is that true?

Liebreich: Again, by definition, who knows? The really successful cover-ups have presumably remained successfully hidden to this day. And in a way, this cover-up worked for nearly four hundred years, so it was pretty successful. If the attitude of the Church today to the publication of my book is “Who cares, it’s four hundred years ago,” then you could say this cover-up was successful. Incidentally, we have sent copies of Fallen Order to Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican Library, and Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, and have had no response whatsoever. I sent a copy to the U.K. cardinal, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, and got a polite thank-you, along with a little comment that if I had issues about Calasanz being a saint, I should take it up with Rome.

On the other hand, the Church’s cover-up about priestly pedophilia in general is coming home to roost in a quite dramatic way now, so probably it would have been healthier for them to have been less successful in covering up and more open about the problems. So in that sense, the cover-up has certainly not worked.

Rail: Do you believe that the Roman Catholic Church’s policy of covering up sexual abuse began as a result of the Piarists or predated that?

Liebreich: I would bet that the policy—if you can call an automatic, secretive reaction a policy—predated the Piarists. One of the straplines for the book is “the first priestly child sex abuse scandal,” but in fact I would be surprised to learn that this was the very first case ever of priestly pedophilia and the first case where the authorities deliberately covered it up. But it seems to be—at least so far—the first properly documented, absolutely provable case.

Rail: What is the policy/historical policy of the Catholic Church to the jurisdiction of secular authorities? According to its own doctrines, does the Church answer to anyone?

Liebreich: The Catholic Church historically does not permit secular authorities to exercise jurisdiction over its clergy, so tonsured clerics were not subject to lay courts. At the period of my book, for instance, Venice had fallen under an interdict in 1606 because Paul V was offended that the Republic of Venice had dared to try two clerics and throw them into jail, interdict being a pretty serious punishment—no marriages, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, or anything involving the Church permitted. And this is a problem the Church faces today — traditionally, it has been trying to deal with its own problems without calling in the police, and this is something that those outside the Church find unacceptable. Much of the recent debate seems to have centered on when Church authorities are obliged to tell the secular authorities. I think most outside sources would argue that since the Church has failed so signally to deal with its own dirty linen, it has forfeited any rights it may have had, and priests should be subject to the law of the land as all other people accused of crimes are.

Rail: You mention in your book that the Vatican is not alone in its problems with child abuse—a position often taken by Roman Catholic governing bodies. Are there any other organizations that have committed sexual abuse on the same scale or maintained a comparable policy of enabling offenders through an at-all-costs concern for institutional reputation?

Liebreich: The Catholic Church is one of the oldest, largest, and most centralized religious bodies, so by definition it is likely to have the longest track record of abuse, the widest selection of abusers, and the most hierarchical methods of dealing with the problem. Celibacy, the traditional Catholic view of sexual activity; the loyalty of brothers-in-arms (or brothers-in-order) to one another; the subservient role of the laity, along with the corresponding elevation of the priest to a position of such respect that questioning his actions is unthinkable; the lack of selectiveness faced with unsuitable candidates; a lack of imagination about the impact of child abuse—all these elements create an environment ripe for abuse to flourish.

Certainly in the U.K., I would imagine that the Catholic clergy far outstrip any other organization in the number of cases coming to court.

Rail: Do you feel that the confessional does anything to redeem incorrigible pedophiles?

Liebreich: Again, who knows, since what is said in the confessional remains secret, so who knows how many potential offenders have been helped or prevented from offending. However, the number of cases of priests who had confessed their problems to their confessors or bishops and then continued to offend is significant. For instance, in France Father Rene Bissey admitted his crimes to his bishop, who simply moved him to another parish. In June 2001 Monsignor Pierre Pican, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux and president of the Episcopal Committee for Childhood and Youth, member of the Commission on the Family, was charged with “non-denunciation of sexual attack and poor treatment of minors” for failing to tell the police about Bissey’s activities, which included rape and child molestation. So in this case, no, I don’t think the confessional helped. Maybe it helps in some cases. Surely the priest hearing the confession has a duty to society, and shouldn’t his duty to his parishioners’ children take priority over his duty to his confessee?

Rail: The running estimates of the number of people killed in Roman Catholic holy wars and by the Roman Catholic Church itself, in myriad forms of inquisition, range from 50 million to 150 million. If you were to estimate, how many children would you say have been preyed upon?

Liebreich: A couple of estimates: Three thousand people file for compensation in Ireland out of a population of 3.8 million, or 0.08% of the population (which is almost entirely Catholic). There are 1,092,853,000 Catholics in the world (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Extrapolating from that, 873,000 people currently alive have been abused (and in fact, 3,000 who come forward in Ireland is probably underreporting). So, 873,000 victims alive now times 2.5 to get the figure for the 20th century alone equals 2,182,500 for the 20th century. Say 500,000 per century for the previous 500 years, based on a smaller population and fewer Catholics (pretty rough guesses), but that adds another 2,000,000. So this estimate comes in at over 4 million.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ independent survey of February 2004 (the results are on www.religioustolerance.org) between 1950 and 2002, 110,000 priests served in the U.S., of whom 4,450 have been accused of abuse, or around 4%. According to 2001 figures, there are 405,000 priests in the world, so if 4% of them are abusers, that is 16,200 priests, assuming the same rate of abuse in America as in the rest of the world (and who knows and why not?). So 16,200 priests abusing a modest 30 victims each is 486,000 victims over the last 50 years. So that comes out at 972,000 victims for 20th century, a few thousand less by this estimate, but still perhaps around 3 million.

But it is very hard to make estimates. Thomas Fox, in the National Catholic Reporter, estimates that the “average pedophile priest abuses 285 victims.” William Reid of the Psychiatric Times has written that “careful studies have indicated…that child molesters commit an average of sixty offenses for every incident that comes to public attention.” Fox’s figure does seem very high, so I would be reluctant to use that as a true basis, even for such rough guessing as we are doing here. Anyhow, that would bring the sum up to 9,234,000 or 1,944,000 for the 20th century, bringing the total number perhaps into the tens of millions.

Rail: In your research—I know you trolled through mountains of documents—how much actual discussion of the gospels was brought to bear in dealing with child abuse? Was there any talk of the weak?

Liebreich: I found no mention of the gospels in any of the documentation dealing with child abuse. I found no mention of the victims and/or the children. Only one child was ever named. In my documents, the concern is always for the public scandal, then for the priest, never for the child. I was careful to quote the relevant sections of the documents comprehensively for fear of being accused of selective quotation, so had they mentioned the gospels, I would have included it.

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