A sordid tale of pederast priests and blind-eye bishops: a headline fit for today, that is, 350-odd years old.
BBC/History Channel researcher and producer Liebreich caught her first glimpse of the Counterreformation-era Order of the Clerics Regular of the Pious Schools, or Piarists, while conducting research in dusty archives in Rome and Florence. Founded by a Spanish priest, José de Calasanz, at the turn of the 17th century, the order was devoted to feeding, housing, and educating poor boys who might otherwise be tempted into Protestantism. Over the centuries, its beneficiaries included Victor Hugo and Mozart, and the order enjoyed influence in distant places such as Moravia and Poland. Notes Liebreich, though, the Catholic Encyclopedia “skips blithely from 1612, when the Roman school moved to larger premises, to 1748 when the founder was beatified.” What happened in those intervening years? Plenty: while Calasanz, who would come to be regarded as the patron saint of public education, worked diligently to keep his schools running against all manner of intramural politicking in Rome, priests under his charge all over Europe used their proximity to and power over young boys to commit what was then called “the worst vice.” As news of the scandals reached Rome, it was ignored, dismissed, and hushed up, while “the concern,” writes Liebreich, “was always for the sinner, the priest, never for the victim, however young.” Indeed, one of worst offenders was eventually booted upstairs, protected by the pope himself. Finally, however, the scandal could be hidden no longer, and the order was suppressed. Some of the priests entered other orders, but one took the initiative of murdering a little old lady whose confession he had been hearing, loading up her riches, and sailing away: “The crime was not discovered for a few weeks, and the ex-Piarist was never heard from again.”
Liebreich’s account shows not only that priestly abuse is an old problem, but also that cover-ups never work—a pointed moral with obvious, and timely, implications.