The Catholic church’s mishandling of pedophile scandals among its clergy has been going on for hundreds of years, a new book reveals.
Father Joseph Calasanz, a 17th century Spanish priest who founded the Piarist Order to educate the children of the poor, remains a revered figure who was canonised in 1767. An elegant statue stands in his memory at St Peter’s in Rome.
Scholars who have been educated by the order, which has 1500 priests across the world, include Goya, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner and Victor Hugo.
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But a British academic has uncovered a secret, hidden for more than 300 years in the Vatican archives. Father Joseph, 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 historian, claims: “The contemporary Catholic church’s practice of moving a suspected pedophile 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 Father Joseph 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,” Father Joseph wrote.
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 Father Joseph 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.
Father Joseph 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.
Pope Innocent’s decision to close the order has usually been explained by its alleged indiscipline, Cherubini’s political machinations, and members’ friendship with the heretical astronomer Galileo.
But Dr Liebreich’s 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.”