In response to Silence and shame at the Sheldonian, Clovernews commented:

…it seems to me that Church teaching was historically more about the preservation of the virtues of unmarried girls rather than ‘child sexual abuse’ as such. Those challenged to quote anything about the matter from the Bible usually fall back on the one about people having millstones hung around their neck and thrown into the sea if they ‘offend one of these little ones’ [Luke 17:2] – clearly ‘offend’ can mean anything you want it to, especially after 2000 years, and in any case scholars think that passage refers to recent converts to Christ’s teachings rather than children. (See Mark 9:42 and Matthew 18:6.)

I replied to this, but forgot to mention that MacCulloch justifies his contention that the church has always recognised and abhorred child abuse not by reference to the Bible or to specific doctrinal pronouncements but by giving a historical example of “child abuse” in the church in the 17th century which the church recognised as such. Specifically, he points to a study by Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order: A History (London, Atlantic, 2004).

The clerical order in question was the Order of the Clerics Regular of the Pious Schools, known as the Piarists, which was given formal papal recognition as an order after its founder, Joseph Calasanz, had spent a quarter-century building up a network of free schools for poor children. But by 1629, according to MacCullouch, scandal arose over the sexual abuse of boys by one Father Sefano Cherubini at a Piarist school in Naples. Calasanz (who would eventually be declared a saint) covered up for Cherubini, but the scandals continued and Cherubini, from a powerful family, eventually gained control of the order, and contrived the arrest of the aging founder by the Inquisition. By 1643, with the support of the Inquisition, Cherubini was promoted Universal Superior of the Order. This led to a “chorus of outrage” from conscientious Piarists across Europe, but the response of Pope Innocent X was simply to dissolve the order in 1646.

So, in MacCulloch’s telling, we have Cherubini as a really rotten apple in the barrel; there is a classic cover-up, much the same as in the scandals of recent times; and then, finally, drastic action from the top.

All very clear and simple. Except that the story is quite dizzyingly spun by MacCulloch, so I’m not sure we can trust a thing he says. For instance, with the seeming intention of making sure the “paedo” comes out as the bad guy, MacCulloch concentrates not on any terrible sexual abuse (it may have been horribly coercive, but perhaps not) but on Cherubini’s unscrupulous use of the Inquisition. However, in a Guardian review of Liebreich’s book, we learn that the guilty party in grassing up the founder was someone quite different:

There is nasty Mario Sozzi, who shopped his enemies to the Inquisition, and was struck down by a kind of leprosy. His treatment involved being wrapped naked in the still pulsating body of a recently slaughtered ox. Sozzi died anyway – but his colleagues enjoyed eating the ox.

Also, was the alleged sexual abuse the real reason the Piarist Order was dissolved? What MacCulloch does not tell us is that the Piarists in Florence embraced the teaching of Galileo that the Earth moves around the Sun – a doctrine which could easily have cost Galileo his life when the Inquisition put him on trial over it. This dangerous connection with Galileo was alone sufficient to put the future of the order in doubt. And there was more. The Piarists were opposed by the increasingly powerful Jesuits. And Pope Innocent even had a personal reason to put the knife in: Calasanz had once slighted his sister-in-law. But what really brought about the order’s downfall, according to Liebreich, was not sex but a lack of sufficiently powerful backers.

Of this complex swirl of difficulties for the Piarists we hear absolutely nothing from MacCulloch. Instead, in his account, the downfall of the order had to be attributed entirely to a sex scandal perpetrated by a pantomime villain of a paedo and his co-conspirators. This is simplistic trash. It is History by Numbers, designed not to paint a rich and subtle picture of 17th century history, but to colour in, luridly and crudely, a pattern dictated by 21st century obsessions.

A footnote worth recording briefly is that the Piarists were later resurrected. They apparently did a rather good job of teaching the poor really useful stuff: mercantile arithmetic, such as how to calculate the interest on loans, and exchange rate mechanisms. Calasanz hoped these skills would help the pupils find jobs in banks, warehouses, counting houses and other trades. And if that sounds a bit dull, well, be it also known that among the schools’ later pupils were such totally non-dull figures as Mozart, Goya, Haydn and Victor Hugo, so perhaps the Piarists were doing something right.

Another footnote: Heretic TOC emailed MacCulloch yesterday, inviting him to read Prof. Igor Primoratz on the ethics of paedophilia, plus Jon Henley’s recent Guardian article Paedophilia: bringing dark desires to light, in a bid to encourage a less absolutist stance on his part against non-coercive “child abuse”. The email concluded:

If, however, you are content to be just another strident voice in the unedifying cacophony of hate-speak that passes for current public debate on this matter, just carry on as normal! Be as cowardly and mediocre as you wish! The high esteem in which you are held will suffer not one whit, quite the opposite!

Sir Diarmaid did at least deign to reply, this morning, albeit in brief and uncompromising terms. He said simply, “Thanks for your mail.  We will have to agree to differ on this”. Oh, well, one can only try. Full marks to him, at least, for keeping his cool.