A Catholic cover-up

As Catholicism has been forced to face up to the presence of paedophiles among its priests, it has uttered various pleas in mitigation for the sins these men have been allowed to visit on children. The one heard most regularly goes something along the lines of: “If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have acted differently.”

This is precisely one of the defences used by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, to explain why in the early Eighties he posted Michael Hill, whom he knew to be a paedophile, to act as chaplain at Gatwick Airport where Hill carried on ruing young lives as before. Paedophilia, the cardinal suggested, was something so new and so unknown to the Catholic Church then that he didn’t know how serious it was or how to react.

It was always a pretty thin excuse. What precisely was it about an adult having sex with children that he didn’t realize ought to be taken seriously? But whatever remaining virtue there is in the defence used by Murphy-O’ Connor and others in positions of power in the Church is destroyed by Karen Liebreich in Fallen Order. For the princes of the church, it seems, as far back as the 17th century were all too aware of paedophile preists and were busy covering up their activities.

Liebreich, a historian and broadcaster, stumbled, while researching in Florence, upon the archives of the Piarist Order, founded in 1622 and a major force in Catholic education on the continent. The Scolopi priests, as they are known in Italy, and their Pious Schools played a major role in educating poor young boys out of the ghetto. But after the initial success of the order, under Spanish founder, Jose de Calasanz (later canonised and named in 1947 by the church as celestial protector of all schools) it was banned by order of Pope Innocent X in 1646. The given reason was internal dissent but, as Liebreich carefully unravels, underpinning the dissent was the activity of paedophile priests in its ranks.

The regime Calasanz established was tough and austere but well-intentioned. Such was its appeal that it swiftly spread through Italy, and up into Germany and Poland. Calasanz was under such pressure to find priests to staff the ever-increasing roll call of schools that he took on some unpleasant characters. Father Stefano Cherubini, the son and brother of eminent papal lawyers, rose rapidly to head the Pious School in Naples, promoted by the local provincial, Father Melchiorre Alacchi. Both were paedophiles.

Confronted with the evidence of what they were doing, Calasanz did not throw them out or hand them over to the Inquisition for trial on charges that carried the death penalty. He promoted them to ever more senior bureaucratic roles, hoping that keeping them out of the classroom would minimise the risk of their reoffending. He summed up his method in a note sent to a lieutenant who feared one of the abused boy’s fathers would cause a scandal: “One should first assure oneself of the truth with all secrecy, which in such cases should be dissimulated and covered up, so it does not appear true even if it is.” These, remember, are the words of the saint to whom Catholicism has entrusted the care of schoolchildren.

Strangely, Calasanz emerges in some senses from this sorry tale as a victim rather than a villain. He at least tried to keep Cherubini out of the classroom. The Vatican, by contrast, when it was drawn into the affairs of the order for a whole set of other reasons was happy to give Calasanz’s job to Cherubini and leave him to enjoy unregulated power. It was only when he over-reached himself politically that Innocent X finally lost patience and shut it down. Had Cherubini only been addicted to abusing children, you get the impression they would have been happy for him to continue.

Liebreich tells her story well and for the most part leaves readers to draw their own modern-day comparisons, though she can be heavy-handed – as with her last chapter which gives a detailed history of recent revelations. Her main problem is that the core story, while shocking and important, is so straightforward it could have fitted into an article.

Like most sensible Catholics, I hope that recent history will leave the church a cleansed, more humble organisation, more able to do what it is meant to be here for. In this regard, Fallen Order holds out a glimmer of encouragement, for the Piarist order was eventually restored and appears to have learnt its lesson. In the recent wave of allegations, it does not appear to feature at all. It seems to have taken on board what many Catholic leaders to this day struggle with – namely that when confronted by the activities of a paedophile priest what is most important is protecting children, not the institution of the church. Karen Liebreich’s fascinating if uneven book shows all too painfully the wickedness of the second course of action.

Peter Stanford.

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