Saving Boys in the Church, Saving Boys from the Church: A Thematic survey and Personal Odyssey

Saving Boys in the Church,
Saving Boys from the Church:

A Thematic Survey and Personal Odyssey

by Daniel Dervin

An integral part of the history of children is the history of their institutional care. The ancients practiced infanticide outright or in its more moderate forms of exposure with impunity. At risk children who lost parents were protected in Roman times by a system of guardianship; others roamed the streets, were sold into slavery, or drifted into crime.

In the Christian era, apart from monasteries and convents, public safety nets may have first been cast in the East Roman Empire while the West was still emerging from the Dark Ages. Anna Comnena's account of her father Alexios's reign provides a major milestone. The emperor had returned to Constantinople from a campaign in 1166 against the Turks with many refuges, including bereaved children. These were divided into three groups: 1) those assigned to relatives; 2) those sent to monasteries; and 3) those entrusted for general education to the Orphanotropheion, an orphanage he had earlier founded.1.

In the first group, Alexios is following the older Roman practice of guardianship. There is some evidence of adoption as well.2 Who is designated an orphan? As Miller points out, the classical definition of a fatherless child qualifies as an orphan, due to paternal inheritance laws. Surviving mothers, who were part of the dowry system, did not alter the child's status, though an inconsistency of usage obtained.3 In the second group, Alexios accords with Western practices of delivering orphans or unwanted children to monasteries and convents, although Byzantine facilities accepted infants and procured wet nurses.4 In the third group the founding of a civic institution for orphans marks a departure for both East and West. Begun as a "simple episcopal orphanage for abandoned children from the streets of the city," it had "evolved into a large and complex government agency supervising a wide range of welfare services."5

Previously, there had only been "charitable group homes and schools" administered by the clergy and a few civic benefactors.6 In the 5th century, for example, a "wealthy Christians widow of Constantinople had set up a church and orphan asylum dedicated to the Holy Innocents.7 The population in Byzantine regions had steadily grown, and although people in the West were dispersed in villages and farm communities, by the 14th Century, crowding in such cities as Florence motivated "urban laymen and municipal authorities to establish orphanages and foundling hospitals."8 Individual philanthropy and public administration combined for a new kind of "civic charity."9 The result was the opening in 1445 of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Infants were accepted anonymously, with or without identifying notes, and occasionally reclaimed (much rarer in Rome). In another departure, they were sent out to the country for wet nursing which could last from 18 to 24 months. Recalled, boys who were not adopted were educated for a trade and soon apprenticed out; girls were also taught domestic skills and might be provided with dowries or taken on as servants. Over time the stay in the facility lengthened.

Governed by compassion and charity, the "organization of care attempted to replicate insofar as it was institutionally possible the experience of family life."10 Though the sexes were separated, the staff referred to itself as all one family; should a girl marry someone from outside he would be referred to as "our son-in-law."11 The Ospedale was seen as a "fortress of charity and compassion," and through "exploring the limits of grief, Florentines redefined the boundaries of the innocence of children."12 In keeping with social advances, the Ospedale prepared its adolescents "to participate in the wider civic world of Renaissance Florence."13 Relatively independent of the Church and responsive to humanist ideals, early orphanages thus reflected Europe's secularizing trends.

Besides monasteries, convents, and orphanages, other institutions in early modern Europe identified children in conditions of neglect or poverty and adapted various rescue strategies. Both those that worked and those that didn't proved instructive, but to better access their variety as well as their complexity, I have opted for a more personal narrative.


Boys Town spread out just beyond the city limits where I was born or, by way of giving fame its due, one could say Omaha abuts Boys Town. After Newt Gingrich proposed reviving orphanages to solve the problems of the homeless, he had little follow-up beyond his memories of the 1938 movie Boys Town -- once again Hollywood to the rescue in the person of Spencer Tracy.

Growing up in a second-generation parish of mostly modest new homes on the western outskirts, I had a hands-on encounter with the boys of Boys Town when our eighth-grade CYO basketball team met theirs in a spacious new gymnasium on their grounds. The boys were bigger than us, probably older, and played a no-nonsense, on the rough side. I'm sure they won and also sure we left feeling wary about Boys Town.

Around this time, I was shooting baskets in the church parking-lot and on neighborhood driveways, mostly hanging out. On one of these blocks, actually on my paper route, lived the Peter family and their three sons. The youngest was Val Peter, less tall than his peers and sporting the nickname of Sugar for his head of bright curly hair (I'm guessing). A year ahead of me at the Jesuit prep school, he followed in due course his two brothers into the seminary. He was assigned a parish in Omaha's little Italy near the river and by the time he was appointed director of Boys Town, I had long since lost track of him.

Those interim years began dissolving when he responded to my email in the spring of 2009 and we arranged to meet for lunch at the Boys Town cafeteria on a recent summer day. Now in his mid-seventies and semi-retired, he lives on the grounds and, judging from his cell-phone beeping from current staff and former residents with urgent issues, remains actively involved.

Gathering our food trays, I flippantly remarked that he hadn't changed. "Oh, you haven't either!" he instantly replied, and I realized only later that any utterance smacking of irony, much less any sarcastic tone, was readily parlayed into a positive upbeat response. This outlook may well have stemmed from his unwavering religious faith, but on this day it came across as a well-grounded belief in human goodness--present in fact or in promise. Skepticism was not on his menu. When I raised the question of youngsters' running off and the role of law enforcement, he took it as one of their ongoing challenges. What happens to a repeater? "Then I speak with him and say it looks like you're not ready to live here. Maybe you should try something else."

Despite a sizeable professional team, Father Peter said theirs was not a therapeutic community. Some years back they had adopted a version of behaviorial modification gauged toward positive reinforcement--little more than the basic common sense already being practiced. Nor is it a religious community. Father Flanagan's dictum---Everyone prays, but everyone prays in their own way---still prevails. There is no religious coercion or criteria. The original mission to provide a home for needy youths, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, and to educate them for an independent livelihood via farming or skilled trades, still holds. The aim has been to produce worthy citizens.

Father Peter explained that the majority (80% was cited) made successful adjustments into society; however, owing to their often very damaged childhoods, few aspired to higher education. In 1983, the facility changed its name to Boys and Girls Town, as girls were admitted, but now, although girls remain part of the community, the name has reverted to its former and more famous logo (I gather due in part to fund-raising issues).

Our talk then waxed more reminiscent. He felt our old parish and neighborhood was the best of all possible places to grow up in, and would have none of my teasing that his blocks favored a more genteel WASP-y class, while mine were composed of Italian and Central European, mostly blue-collar families. His own family line was Bavarian and, as I recalled Val was outgoing and fun loving while his two older brothers seemed more standoffish (otherworldly in retrospect); he portrayed his father as pretty strict but supportive (a possible Prussian strain I recall apparent in the straight-backed older sibs).

Lunch over, like emissaries of foreign countries, we exchanged books. Father Peter's serendipitous gift, a life of Father Flanagan, facilitated my inquiries. Shot on location and with the founder's extensive assistance, Boys Town the Movie undoubtedly inspired generations of viewers and bestowed Hollywood immortality, but it was clear who had inspired Spencer Tracy when he sent his Oscar to the priest. So who was the man behind the actor's mask?

In 1886, Edward Flanagan was born into a thriving Irish Catholic farming family near the rural village of Ballymore, County Roscommon. In his mid-fifties then, Edward's father John was a devout Catholic, and according to an early unpublished biography, was of a "commanding pres­ence, extremely conscientious, and keenly aware of the responsibilities attendant on raising a family." Sporting an auburn beard, he was a "stern, but just disciplinarian."14 His wife Nora was a decade younger, an exceedingly kind, generous woman...whose valiant faith and unceasing attentions to her children earned their lifelong admiration." (p. 13) After her husband's death and the children had grown, Nora joined her son to actively assist in Boys Town. Their marriage was arranged.

Edward was the eighth child in a family of eleven. An older brother Patrick also became a priest, and due to the impoverished state of the country, all but two siblings fled Ireland. Large families were the rule, but despite high infant/child--mortality rates, there were three times as many children then than now. Suffering convulsions and turning blue, Edward nearly died in his first weeks, his recovery credited to a benign grandfather who practiced a brand of folk medicine. His parents spared him the heavier farm work and sent him out to the fields to shepherd the sheep and cattle.

Although he had great stamina and lived for sixty-four years, his health was often touch-and-go; overwork and stress occasionally compelled him to take extended rest periods. At around eight, he expressed a desire to become a priest and was instructed in Latin by the parish priest. Seven years later he left home for a diocesan college fifty miles away where the discipline was strict and the punishment harsh. (p. 19) His spontaneously leading hymns and playing the mouth organ pointed to a natural leadership style. In 1904 when he had risen to over six feet and was enjoying good health, it was decided that he would join his brother Patrick, by then a missionary priest in Omaha, and continue his studies abroad. He thus joined the tidal wave of Irish immigration; at home they observed his departure as final with an "American wake." (p. 24)

His first assignment was St. Patrick's, an Irish immigrant parish in O'Neill, Nebraska. The pastor was apparently an uncommunicative tight­wad whose strict, letter-of-the-law style masked personal deficiencies. Soon, the young priest was transferred to another St. Patrick's, this one in Omaha. It was Easter, 1913, and a fierce storm had destroyed hundreds of buildings and left many dead and homeless. These were added to the many unemployed workers who poured into town seeking work at the railroad and stockyards.

The priest would find them standing on street corners, "haggard and destitute," and help them find food. (p. 33) But with winter approaching, he began planning a hotel for homeless men. In 1916, he was selected to manage the Workingmen's Hotel. Dealing with this often rowdy bunch pointed him in the direction of his life's work, but he was also learning some difficult lessons. Despite efforts to find work for the men, they often returned down and out or coming off a bender. He also found in talking to them that many had been orphaned in childhood, or come from large families that couldn't support them, or from broken homes. "They veered here, were shoved there throughout their formative years and, reaching a man's estate, they were only shells of men," he rued. "I knew that my work lay not with these shells of men, but with the embryo men--the homeless waifs who had nowhere to turn, no one to guide them." (p. 38)

He talked to the boys who wandered in with the men and affected their older, independent manner. He reunited some with their families and, on behalf of others who had been through the juvenile court system, intervened to avoid reform school which was only a training-ground for crime. He saw that they were poor, hungry, "ragged and abandoned," but not criminals and not hopeless. What these older boys needed was a home: "someplace where they could grow, learn a trade and live in safety" before it was too late. (p. 39)

One night after finding space in the watchman's small room for a desperate lad, he pondered the loving kindness of his own parents and how he still missed having nearby his mother who would know how to help the boy--"innocent and unspoiled" (with whom he clearly identified)--and decided before he could sleep to give these homeless boys the teachings and loving support he had benefited from. (p. 41)

He launched The Boys' Home Journal, embarked on fund-raising cam­paigns, enlisted local politicians along with the newspaper and, after bouncing from one building to another, located 160 acres of farmland ten miles out in the country. All financial support during these years and thereafter came from the private sector. (p. 83) The project soon evolved from a temporary refuge to a residence with a school, workshops, and home-grown food. His aim was to make the boys self-sufficient, and in a short-lived, self-governance experiment, they formed parties and voted in 1926 to adopt the name Boys Town.

While the biography was certainly inspiring, it left the impression that Father Flanagan's achievements were not only unprecedented but also a series of solo solutions improvised to meet one daunting challenge after another. When I raised the question of models in an email to Father Peter, he replied: Saint John Bosco.

Consigned to relative obscurity with no Spencer Tracy to portray him, the saint known as Don Bosco, deserves an important place in the history of childhood. The parallels with the Irish priest are telling, their divergences no less so. He was born into a farm family in the Piedmont near Turin in 1815.15 There were three children: Anthony from a previous marriage, Joseph, and John. Before he was two, his otherwise healthy and devoted father died from a sudden illness (possibly pneumonia). His mother found the strength to take over the farm and invested great care in the religious formation of her children. Her oldest son Anthony, who would assume the father's place in running the farm, vehemently disapproved of nine-year-old John being boarded out to school. This was to become a conflicted dynamic between a grimly narrow-minded older sibling who deemed book-learning a waste of time and a bookish younger one who also loved playing the magician and storyteller at local fairs, even performing acrobatics---more foolishness in the other's eyes.

John was also given to prophetic dreams. In the first one at around age nine or ten, he is scolding and striking a gang of youths for using foul language when a dignified adult enters and says the boy will win over his friends not by blows but by gentle love and kindness. The dreamer is next greeted by a glorious lady in a star-studded mantle. She displays his future field of endeavor by showing how a collection of domestic and wild animals can be transformed into sheep if he approaches them with humility and strength. (pp. 18-19) Told the dream, his mother suggested he might become a priest.

At eleven, he was approached by an "old and bent," but "very devout," prelate to whom he confided his desire to become a priest. Further queried, he explained, "I'd like to attract my companions, talk to them, and teach them our religion. They're not bad, but they become bad because they have no one to guide them." (p. 35) The old padre offered to become his mentor and spiritual director.

On school holidays, John mingled the local youngsters: "entertaining them with stories, pleasant recreation, sacred music," along with prayers and instructions in their faith. He formed what he called a "kind of oratory, attended by about fifty children who loved me and obeyed me as if I were their father." (p. 112) As a young curate, his new spiritual director took him into the prisons where he saw many "young lads aged from 12 to 18, fine healthy youngsters, alert of mind, but seeing them idle there, infested with lice, lacking food for body and soul, horrified me." Finding that many returned for lack of resources, he asked himself, "Who knows, if these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion...they might be steered away from ruin?" (p. 182)

Along with his parish duties, he began collecting youths, some just re­leased from prison, others stuck in infested tenements and forced to work ninety-hour weeks, or else abandoned to the streets, who, once befriended, given instructions, and sent to new employers, "soon forgot the past and began to mend their ways. They became good Christians and honest citizens. This was the beginning of our Oratorio." (p. 190) Returning to the prisons with food and tobacco, he encouraged the young captives to attend the Oratorio upon release. (p. 198) The ages of those attending ranged from eleven into their twenties.

Appointed director of a hospital, he was allotted unoccupied quarters on the grounds for his Oratorio meetings. There ensues a period of changing venues from churches to open fields, of contending with locals over his rowdy youths, and of scrambling for patrons among the aristocracy, including a timely intervention from the King of the region.

Don Bosco's clamorous flock had been stirring political anxieties among the municipal authorities and exciting rumors that he was off his rocker. A marchioness who had underwritten his activities insisted he take a rest or be dismissed: he didn't and was. Church officials maintained a circumspect silence. At the eleventh hour he was shown a ramshackle shed on a landowner's property which, when fixed up, offered a "church, a sacristy, a classroom, and a place to play." (p. 257) He made the most of it.

Following Mass, there were catechism lessons and singing classes for those interested, while most "jumped about, ran, and enjoyed themselves in various games," including, the priest writes, "juggling, tightrope walking, and stick balancing that I had learned from acrobats"--all carried out with religious counseling on the side. (p. 267)

Sunday classes expanded to evenings and as the curriculum grew to include art and arithmetic, reading and writing, he enlisted older boys he had been teaching free in town to help out at his fledgling school. With a teaching staff, the enterprise was vetted by the head of a movement begun in the 18th Century known as the Schools for the Poor, and thus qualified for public funds. (p. 284)

Recovering from exhaustion and a grave illness, presumably pleurisy, he appealed to his mother Margaret to share rooms with him at a former boarding house. His youth work then took two new turns: he composed a Rule, i.e., a set of regulations, and plans for housing. A fifteen-year-old orphan had shown up one rainy May evening soaked to the skin, pleading for bread and shelter. As Margaret fed the lad and dried his clothes, her son asked him where he would go. He replied, "I don't know. For charity's sake, let me stay in some corner of your house tonight." He broke down and cried, joined by Margaret. Don Bosco too was moved. But they were wary. Previously, homeless boys had run off with blankets and other items put out for them. Nonetheless, they began to rent additional rooms. (pp. 313-4)

In the following years as his Oratorios spread, Don Bosco formed the Salesain Society. He had always been devoted to St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), a French priest influenced by Renaissance Humanism. His Introduction to a Devout Life advocated a "spirituality compatible with life in the world." It was his aim to turn wayward youth into worthy Christian citizens that inspired Don Bosco and later Father Flanagan.

Standing out among the parallels between these pioneers are the con­cern for older youths, more or less abandoned by society and left to the tender mercies of a callous judicial system. Retaining the emotional ties and indeed presence of their mothers favored the authenticity and transparency of their youth-work. Both mingled freely among the youngsters while preserving their priestly role. Don Bosco entertained the lads in acrobatics and taught them his tricks; Father Flanagan would take some of his boys fishing and sparred with them. One opponent knocking off his glasses provoked a scolding from his mother who had been watching.

The fact that he boxed with his glasses on indicates he was only having fun. Despite or because of his strict and no doubt abusive early education, Father Flanagan ruled out corporal punishment in Boys Town. "There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking."17 Emailing Father Peter about a period in the 1970s when the Christian Brothers had been invited in to teach and then were abruptly dismissed, I asked if they had gotten physical with the boys; he concurred.

The tidal wave of clerical abuse that landed in the late 1980s had become a tsunami by 2002. In 1989 at the Mount Cashel boys home in St. John's Newfoundland, a long history of abuse carried out by the Christian Brothers was finally made public, although "most of the accusations had been known by police and social services since 1975" and been covered up.18 Public hearings ran daily on Canadian television, culminating in a documentary film, The Boys of St. Vincent (no Spencer Tracy part here).

Testimonials and book-length studies followed. Sacrilege, Leon Podles' 2008 global survey of clerical abuse provides a useful context. Victorian responses to ragamuffins, juvenile delinquents, streets kids, the so-called wayward youth aimed to protect society from these "rough boys" through "orphanages and industrial schools."19 The narrower focus here will be on the Christian Brothers, founded in 1680 by St. John Baptist de La Salle "principally for the Christian education of the sons of the poor and the working class."20

For years Newfoundland Catholics had been beseeching the Order to come, and after arriving in 1875, they founded an orphanage. However things went at first, by the 1950s they widely "brutalized the boys with 'excessive, if not, savage punishment."21 Brother Edward English would swear at the boys, then "fly into rages during which he would pummel the boys with his fists or lash them with his belt or a special leather strap."22

Later in the dormitory the Brother would force a nine-year-old boy into oral sex. Podles construes this sequence as a prevailing pattern: first the perpetrator would threaten or inflict violence, then sexually exploit the terrified, subdued boy. Given their shadowy background, the boys were not credible to the authorities; a police investigation begun in 1975 was dropped, even after--or due to--the brothers freely admitting their sexual offenses. "They were not worried because they knew the Church and the State would protect them," and in fact the Ministry of Justice simply required them to discreetly leave the province. A reporter who heard about the allegations was persuaded to kill the story after the superior general interceded on behalf of the orphanage with the publisher.23

Some of the boys were accused in the early 1980s of doing with each other what had been done to them, and a Brother Burton admitted to having sex with his victim fifty times. He was stoutly defended by the vicar general as an "extraordinary human being who tragically fell ...a beautiful person." The victims were ignored or disparaged, and the Brother received a four-month sentence, which, under appeal, was reduced to time served, 12 days. He was transferred to another Christian Brothers school and greeted by the principal who had been accused in the suppressed 1975 report.24

In the wake of the 1989 scandals when the Canadian government was asked why institutions set up to protect children had failed so miserably, the answer from Podles' overview is clear: the aim was ever to protect society not the children; to protect the Church not the victims. Following the public trials, the Christian Brothers were convicted of abuse and ordered to pay $70 million to hundreds of victims; Mount Cashel was demolished. After an Archdiocesan commission found Archbishop Penney partly to blame, he took responsibility and resigned---a rare exception, according to Podles.25

A decade later much wider scandals were exposed at two Christian Brothers schools in Ontario. Now better organized, over 1,600 victims came forward and were compensated from a $16 million fund.26 All of this, however, pales in comparison to the situation in Ireland. On May 20, 2009, a 2,600 page government report covering the period from the 1930s to the 1990s, and nine years in the making, revealed that "tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically, and emotionally abused by nuns, priests, and others in a network of church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the unwanted."27

The authors cite "A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive, and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions," and in the boys' schools sexual abuse was "endemic."28 The most prominent of these schools were run by the Christian Brothers who successfully sued to have the accused abusers' names removed from the report. The Catholic Church in Ireland, the Times article continues, has agreed to pay $175 million to victims of clerical abuse; a separate group has paid out over $1.5 billion to more than 10,000 victims.

The report is seen as disputing the claim that such abuse was a relic of the past or, on the other hand, stemming from the anything--goes spirit of Vatican II in the 1960s. Another frequent rationalization when the scandals were breaking and pastors along with bishops were accused of reassigning accused clerics was professed ignorance over their condition. "I only wish that the knowledge we have today had been available to us earlier," lamented Boston's notorious Cardinal Law in 2001.29

But recently unsealed letters show the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, "founder of a religious order that ran retreat centers for troubled priests had warned American bishops, dating back to 1952, that pedophiles should be removed from the priesthood because they cannot be cured."30 A decade later he personally delivered this advice to Pope Paul VI.

Over the years, "He wrote to dozens of bishops," the article continues, "saying that he had learned through experience that most of the abusers were unrepentant, manipulative, and dangerous. He called them 'vipers"'; the apposite clinical term would be sociopaths. A curious document turned up by American lawyers in 2003 went out to all bishops under Pope John XXIII's seal in 1962. "The bishops were told to deal with matters concerning sexual abuse resulting from the confessional 'in the most secretive way' under pain of excommunication for all concerned."31

Key historical questions of the degree to which clerical abuse occurred in earlier centuries and whether it was so identified have been explored by Karen Liebreich in her Fallen Order. Now with a doctorate in history from Cambridge and experience in documentary research for the BBC, she had grown curious about a 17th Century religious order while studying in Florence and was eventually able to access the Vatican Secret Archive and the Apostolic library. Her research into the Piarists, "widely credited with being the first free schools for poor children," brings this survey almost to full circle.32

Son of a village blacksmith, Jose de Calasanz, the Spanish founder of the Piarists arrived in Rome in 1592 at thirty-six. Although from age thirteen he aspired to the priesthood, he remained at home until his parents' deaths. Depicted as a "tall man of venerable presence, with a chestnut beard [and] a stern aquiline face," he would be the subject of Goya's painting, receiving his "Last Communion." (p. 1) The Rome he encountered was a polyglot metropolis in perennial crisis: floods, epidemics, heavy taxes, long bread-lines, flagrant banditry. Two-thirds of the citizens came from elsewhere; the "streets heaved with paupers, vagabonds, and street children." (p. 5) Making the rounds of the poor in the course of charity work for a parish, he visited Trastevere, one of the poorest sections. There he spotted a meagerly funded "little school at the back" of a church, and although the well-to-do and even orphans were provided for, the "ordinary poor children" were often left out. (p. 7)

He offered to pay for their education but was able to "convince a parish priest to accept them gratis, and soon was himself teaching in Trastevere. Successful, he moved to a larger site, Campo de' Fiori, a major marketplace where Giordano Bruno had recently been burned at the stake for heresy. (p. 9) With 500 pupils attending his Pious School, and after the Pope and city officials provided small grants, many more Pious schools and a teaching staff were added.

In 1621, Pope Gregory approved the Piarist Order, and Father Calasanz, "self-appointed father general," promised that his members would "live like angels in the world; in their senses without sensuality; in their flesh, with no carnal affection," while keeping "themselves spiritual and heavenly." (pp. 13-4) Combining religious instruction with vocational training, the schools spread throughout Italy and into central Europe.

Indeed Father Calasanz lived an impeccable spiritual life, routinely depriving himself of food and rest, sacrificing all to the Piarist program. Was it not fitting he be canonized after his saintly life? Is it not enough that he dedicated himself entirely to the survival of his brainchild? Can he be forgiven for overlooking the scandalous behavior of his protege, Stefano Cherubini, who lived openly with his "individual companion" (p. 61) and whom he appointed his Order's "universal superior," (p. xxi) long after it had become blatant to many that children were being abused and not protected?

But Cherubini's protectors--his father and brothers were well-connected Vatican lawyers--trumped other kinds of protection. When the moment of truth came, Father Calasanz opted to protect his order, until it was taken away from him and closed down. Whenever he was alerted to a potential scandal involving one of his clergy molesting pupils, his policy was to 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 true." (p. 126)

On another occasion he counseled, "See that the business does not become public, but is covered up" and kept "from the public, even if in private we find the failings to be real." In a 1950 footnote, the priest-editor of this correspondence finds this letter "full of truly saintly zeal." (pp. 126-7)

Many years later when the order was revived on a much more modest scale, no reason was given for its former eclipse. It took the painstaking detective work of Karen Liebreich to bring the whole story out. Cherubini, the chosen cleric for that lofty post was by then "supported by a small group of like-minded priests, in effect a "pedophile ring" with the full complicity of the Inquisition and the pope himself" until public scandal could no longer be contained. (p. xxi)

At this time of "heightened religious awareness," Liebreich notes, "sex with boys was clearly recognized as a grave sin," yet the "patron saint of all Christian schools" evidently believed he had no choice but to save the culmination of a lifetime's work he had been called to achieve.

Why would he invite the fox into his henhouse? One can only speculate that he was deeply divided inwardly and that the ironically named Cherubini and others enacted Calasanz's repressed urges and earned protection. His rules for teachers had been extremely explicit: "Be very careful in your dealings with the pupils and with other children. Never touch them for any reason whatsoever, except in case of necessity. Do not make eye contact, nor indulge in any kind of familiarity. Do not keep any of them back after school." (p. 62) After assuming ever greater power in the Order, Cherubini rewrote the austere rules. Calasanz's loyal secretary complained that the revisions aimed "solely to escape the mortification of the flesh and give oneself over to the convenience of eating well, drinking well, and messing around with boys." (p. 216) But Calasanz went along with them.

In private, clergy might forego euphemisms and resort to coded words or a lingua franca. Boston's priests not caught up in the current scandal referred to their fellow pedophiles as "chicken hawks." Father Calasanz worried in a letter to a fellow priest about the unnamed but clearly implied "worst vice" which alone would ruin the Order. (p. 69) None of this could transpire without a culture of complicity, and Liebreich makes the other essential point: "Our 21st Century preoccupations with priestly misdemeanors do not impose an alien morality on an earlier period with a different scale of values.... these concerns were of even greater importance in Calasanza's time." (p. 68) Whenever she queried the Piarist archivist about the Order's closure, he would switch the subject, though once he muttered something in Italian sounding like "the worst sin." (p. xxvi) And what of these matters before the 17th Century? Collins takes the passage in Mark 9:42 of the millstone being "hanged about the neck" of those who "offend the little ones" as meaning sexual abuse.33 Indeed this awareness was present from the outset. According to Horn and Martens, early Christian writers coined the term paidophthoreo to convey their dismay at the "seduction and corruption of children."34 Church Fathers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria, included it along with prohibitions against fornication and adultery; in part these discourses were polemics against alleged pagan practices as found in Greek mythology and thus safely distanced from contemporaries, though not always. In any case, among the learned these issues were openly discussed, and a "countercultural" position was supposedly against "Greek love" being advanced among them.35

After exchanging books with Father Peter and reading the life of Father Flanagan, I reflected on how we had set our own youthful sights in opposite directions: his eastward to Rome, mine westward to the Rockies. The book I had handed him was my biography of Father Joseph Bosetti (1886-1954)36, who had played a key formative role for me and whose life-work places him in the company of Father Flanagan and the other priests in this survey. Like the Irish priest, Father Bosetti migrated to America early in the last century, initially to start a parish for Italian immigrants in rural Welby, several miles north of Denver.

His journey to youth-work took a more curious and circuitous route. He was born in Milan propitiously across from the future home for retired musicians. His parents came from the professional classes, but his early years are cloaked in mystery. A recently turned up letter suggests his parents may have separated early on; where and with whom young Giuseppi ("Peppino") lived is uncertain. The record only starts when at around eleven he entered a newly begun Swiss seminary.

The French founder, Fr. Barral, and a few fellow priests had been looking after children, first in an old castle, then in a refurbished inn. His dream to establish a seminary where sons from families of slender means could study for the priesthood got a boost when the Vatican sighted an opportunity to revive abandoned parishes around Rome. The mission motherhouse in Immensee was named Bethlehem, and Peppino arrived in time to help in the construction.

The fact that he entered a facility for disadvantaged youths in an adjacent country raises the question of whether the breakup of his family had left him at risk. Yet the vocational choice was clearly his, for along with a love for the high country, his creative and mental gifts soon blossomed. He earned his keep as an Alpine guide, including the Matterhorn before being sent to complete his studies in Rome. There, he received a doctorate in philosophy at seventeen and a degree in Canon Law; he was also tutored by the organist at St. Peter's.

Father Barral was meanwhile in hot water over the mishandling of funds, and alerted to another looming scandal, Peppino in Rome wrote to warn the rector, whom he clearly revered, of some hanky-panky involving a faculty cleric who ran the infirmary and was taking liberties with the boys. Barral was eventually sent packing for, among other charges, "immorality"---the euphemism of the period for sexual violations of minors. By then, the twenty-two year-old priest had joined the faculty and was developing a local orchestra, but his gifts augured a more illustrious future and, when a visiting priest spoke of the challenge to convert the "Red man" in America, Father Bosetti confirmed the presence of mountains in that far off Indian country and packed his bags.

Not long after arriving in Welby, he was summoned to assist in the dedication of the new Denver Cathedral, where he would remain for the next forty years. It is here that a logical progression begins. Besides teaching French in the high-school, he devoted most of his energies to establishing a vested choir among Denver's rough-and-tumble youth. By way of rewarding his choir-boys, he took them on camping trips into the still pristine Rockies. Next he was presenting musical programs for the public and introducing grand opera to Denver. He reconfigured his boys' choir into a mixed chorus and brought in professional singers from the Met for the lead roles. Here was an authentic Music Man with his magical baton, and Denver not only fell under his spell, but fat cats began bankrolling his projects.

In a few years he had built a rough-hewn lodge at the foot of Mount Meeker near Longs Peak and started a more formal summer camp for Denver's disadvantaged youth, assisted by the now older boys in the choir. One night camping out he had sighted a meteor falling into the mountain valley and, while searching for it, he stood on a large schooner­shaped rock and vowed to erect a chapel on it. When state engineers planned to dynamite it out of the path of a new highway, he took his case to Washington and eventually succeeded in having the road curve around what would soon rise into his famous Chapel on the Rock. He had an aura along with his determined purpose; he was becoming a legend.

When his good friend the bishop insisted on canceling his operas due to the scandal of boys and girls on the stage singing together, he bided his time and once the bishop retired revived his musical seasons. He was after all an irrepressible Renaissance man. But he was also a man with more than one plan up his sleeve. In this sprawling new country being flooded with immigrants, the urgent need was for more priestly vocations (forget the Red man). He put in play an elaborate funneling system for vocations. His choir boys became his camp counselors and, inspired by his loves for nature and the arts, not to mention the religious faith that underpinned it all, many entered the seminary, were ordained, and in due course escorted their altar boys for a week or two in the mountains.

Of course, he was also pleased to promote the careers of his male and female singers, some of whom made the big time in New York and the Met, to return trailing clouds of glory. He was proving a renowned benefactor and mentor. Poring over his radio addresses on music, sermons, and lecture notes from a Colorado University extension course on philosophy where he entertained the theories of Darwin and Freud, I was struck by a recurring motif of the Sublime--applied to the Savior's life, to sacred music, and to the mountains. It seemed a useful way to open the subject of sublimation as his whole life seemed to be a vast sublimation into spirituality, culture, and nature-love.

But I didn't address what was being sublimated, nor did any of the biography's readers wonder, although I thought there were enough dots for anyone to connect. His favorite poem, "The Hound of Heaven," for example, combines art and the religious quest in a mountainous backdrop in which Jesus is the Hound relentlessly stalking the re­luctant sinner. Here was a provocative subtext should the metaphors be read more personally.

My early years at Bosetti's Camp St. Malo overlapped with his final years when his declining health reduced his activities. Often sequestered in his cabin, his presence was largely felt through his camp and the great gift of mountain freedom all of us cherished. As a leader he tended to lead less by preaching publicly than by example, and as a mentor he had around him a fluctuating circle known as "Bosetti's fair-haired boys," to which no one would ever admit belonging, but to which quite a few aspired. And no question, he had his proteges, some of whom went on to distinguished service.

But the most promising of these stood out from the rest. Growing up, Tom Doran had become acquainted with the priest on visits with his family; in high-school Tom was a leading singer in musicals composed and produced by Bosetti (one operetta was called "Bethlehem"). Tom went through the Camp St. Malo experience, hardly dated in high­school, entered the seminary and, through his mentor's connections, studied in Rome. Bosetti joined him to climb the Matterhorn and on to Rome for an audience with the pope. Ordained, he was appointed to Bosetti's Cathedral parish.

Then things began falling apart. Father Tom started drinking heavily and locked horns with the bishop. Discretion required he be whisked off to a rural parish in Platteville. Out of sight, out of mind. But not quite. He took with him one of the women who worked in the Cathedral's dining room, installed her as his housekeeper, and kept her as his mistress. Her teenage son from a former marriage spent summers at the camp, and one day drove Bosetti's beloved Mercury off the road. Anxieties were running high all around. By this time Bosetti had suffered the first in a series of strokes and been forced to turn over his camp to another of his proteges. Father Tom might take over the operas.

In this uncertain state of affairs, Father Tom invited his old friend and mentor to visit over the Christmas holidays and celebrate his birthday on January 1st. Bosetti arrived, and what transpired among this threesome is not recorded, but after lunch on New Years Eve, the now quite portly, sixty-eight-year-old priest suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness. Loyal priests, his former proteges, including Father Tom, held round-the-clock vigils during those final weeks. In the summer Tom Doran left the priesthood and moved to California where he married and enjoyed a second career as college dean. "I left the priesthood," he remarked. "I didn't leave the Church."

On an August afternoon in the summer following Bosetti's death, I was sprawled out in his cabin, conducting a final clearing out with a few other counselors. It had been here I stayed two winters back, when at around seventeen I had driven up for an overnight with one of Bosetti's fair­haired Cathedral boys. And it was while pulling myself out of a sleeping bag on the living-room floor and groggily standing up on the icy floor, that I found myself being pulled into a firm embrace by the elderly priest in his long-johns. I was like, What-the? as I pulled away from his scratchy un­shaven face. He too backed off and uttered something between a deep sigh and an agonized groan of self-reproach before wordlessly turning away.

Since it was completely outside my limited experience and came as a surprise, as he had never shown any particular interest in me, I blew off that awkward moment. In retrospect, I suppose I was an "occasion of sin" as the manuals have it, but I didn't bother including the strange episode in the biography since it seemed an additional gratuitous dot and I wasn't doing a psychological portrait. But I knew by then what was being sublimated, and if he was mostly successful, good for him.

It was on the same August day in his cabin that I perused a book of interest from his shelf. But our desultory little scene was interrupted by someone bursting in quite distraught and glaring at us as interlopers. It was Father Tom in a plaid flannel shirt. Paying us no mind, he strode to the mantelpiece and freed a large painting of the Matterhorn, gave us a final proprietary look and, with it tucked under his arm, stalked out.

The book I had grasped, and am still grasping, was Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud.

A frequent contributor to The Journal of Psychohistory, Dan Dervin is completing a book on the history of childhood.

His article is from the Summer, 2010 issue of The Journal of Psychohistory.


  1. Timothy Miller, The Orphans of Byzantium, p. 1; Anna Comnena (also spelled Komnena), Alexiad (New York: Penguin, 1962, p. 492.
  2. Miller, p. 274.
  3. Miller, p. 17.
  4. Miller, p. 9.
  5. Miller, p. 3.
  6. Miller, p. 3.
  7. Miller, p. 63.
  8. Philip Gavitt, Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), p. 21.
  9. Gavitt, p. 33.
  10. Gavitt, p. 25.
  11. Gavitt, p. 25.
  12. 12. Gavitt, p. 297.
  13. Gavitt, p. 179.
  14. Hugh Reilly and Kevin Wameke, Father Flanagan of Boys Town, Boys Town, NE: Boys Town Press, 2001, pp. 12-3; hereafter, page references are incorporated into the text.
  15. John Bosco, Memoir, page numbers incorporated.
  16. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, p. 35.
  17. Quoted in Reilly, p. 7.
  18. Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests, p. 39.
  19. Podles, p. 72.
  20. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 630-2.
  21. Podles, p. 72, quoting Sam Hughes, Steering the Course, p. 260.
  22. Podles, p. 72, quoting from Michael Harris, Unholy Orders, p. 41.
  23. Podles, p. 73.
  24. Podles, p. 74.
  25. Podles, pp. 76-7.
  26. Podles, p. 226.
  27. Sarah Lyall, "Blaming Church, Ireland Details Scourge of Abuse," New York Times (21 May 09), p. Al.
  28. Sarah Lyall, p. A4.
  29. Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order (New York: Grove, 2004), p. 264.
  30. Laurie Goodstein, "Early Alarm for Church on Abusers in the Clergy," New York Times (13 Apr 09), p. A13 (first reported in the National Catholic Reporter).
  31. Liebreich, p. 261.
  32. Liebreich, p. xxv; future citations incorporated.
  33. Raymond Collins, Sexual Ethics of the New Testament (New York: Crossroads, 20002), p. 62.
  34. Cornelia B. Horn and John W. Martens, "Let the Little Children Come": Childhood and Children in Early Christianity (Wash. D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2009), pp. 226-7.
  35. Horn and Martens, pp. 227-31.
  36. Father Bosetti in America: an Autobiographical Study (Denver: Cache Glade, 2004).

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