Such a reckoning is long overdue, but treating the church’s culture of abuse and coverup as a historical aberration, as a terrible chapter of the modern era, would be a mistake. Today’s headlines about priestly abuse carry strong echoes of the past, suggesting a historical pattern that must also be confronted if the Vatican is serious about restoring trust, increasing accountability and eliminating the stain of sexual abuse.
I became aware of this history after the Vatican’s archives of the Inquisition were opened to lay researchers, for the first time, in 1998. The Inquisition had been renamed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965 in a Vatican attempt to distance the institution from its past reputation as a brutal enforcer of orthodoxy.
Officially, as a doctoral student, I was studying how the 17th-century pedagogical innovations by an order of priests called the Pious Schools formed part of the Counter-Reformation response to Protestantism. Unofficially, I was trying to find out why the order, founded by a Spanish priest named Joseph Calasanz, had been suppressed in 1646, just over 20 years after its establishment, a rare fate for a religious order.
Historians who had addressed the suppression — nearly all of them Piarist Fathers, as members of the order were known — said that the Pious Schools had been shut down as punishment for the order’s close association with the astronomer Galileo, who had been convicted of heresy by the Inquisition in 1633. But after spending several years in the archives researching the priests’ educational methods, I came to suspect that the order’s suppression owed more to the sexual activities of some of the priests with their pupils than to their scientific iconoclasm.
Calasanz opened his first school, dedicated to providing a free education to boys from poor families, in Rome in 1597. More schools soon followed. In 1629, the first accusations of child abuse were made by fellow priests; according to contemporary letters and documents, there were “impure friendships with schoolboys” and “many accusations of impurity and ill-reknown.” One Piarist priest, Father Stefano Cherubini, was a particular focus of the accusations.
Calasanz wrote to the administrator of a nearby school, whom he had sent to investigate Cherubini: “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.”
Cherubini was swiftly promoted by Calasanz, first to rector (the equivalent of headmaster) and then to visitor general (an inspector). Soon, more priestly abusers were discovered, promoted and moved to new schools, in a policy known as promoveatur ut amoveatur, or promotion for avoidance. The rules of the Pious Schools were unequivocal about the sin involved, but in each case Calasanz’s first priority was protecting reputations: the order’s and the perpetrator’s.
In 1643, Cherubini, by now a known sexual abuser of children, replaced Calasanz, appointed on behalf of and with the knowledge of the papacy, as head of this respected religious order, whose sole mission was to teach young boys. Now headed by a priest with a sordid reputation, the Pious Schools also began to suffer from bureaucratic incompetence, over-expansion and loss of patronage, and within a few years of Cherubini’s appointment, the order was suppressed. But in the late 17th century, the order of the Pious Schools was allowed to reestablish itself. Famous pupils included Francisco Goya, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert and Victor Hugo.
Calasanz was canonized in 1767, and in 1948, Pope Pius XII named him “Universal Patron of all the Christian popular schools in the world.” There is of course an unmissable, grim irony in the elevation of someone who was complicit in the sexual abuse of children as the patron saint of Catholic education.
How many other episodes like that of the Pious Schools are interred in the Inquisition and Vatican archives? The Roman Catholic Church, dragged by journalists and victims into confronting the modern plague of clerical sexual abuse, may make headway in this effort with the Vatican conference beginning Thursday. The gathering’s main themes will be responsibility, accountability and transparency. Taking a similar approach to the church’s history might shed light on the current crisis and on the path to renewal.