“A bishop in Australia is informed that the Mother Superior of a new Religious order in his diocese is an alcoholic who is abusing her authority. He moves to protect the Faithful by excommunicating her and trying to disband her Order.
The year is 1871 and the disgraced woman is Mother – now Saint – Mary MacKillop. She suffers in ignominy until her bishop discovers five months later that her Order was framed after getting an Irish priest deported for misbehaviour. She is just one of numerous Catholics to have been falsely accused of crimes or moral lapses by their church community or the civil authorities.
Being wrongfully accused, whether out of malice or misunderstanding, can become an opportunity for Christians to grow in patience, charity, and trust in God’s justice. We share in the suffering of Jesus Christ, who was arrested and executed on trumped-up charges. The examples of these Catholics may help us discern a response if we ever face the same unfortunate situation:
1. Pray for your accusers and offer up your suffering
“He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Is 53:12)
St. Dominic Savio, a pious lad who died before his fifteenth birthday, was known for his charity towards others. When two of his schoolmates quenched the school’s only stove on a cold day by filling it with snow and rubbish, they blamed Dominic, who received a harsh scolding in front of the class. Dominic stayed silent until the teacher learned the next day who the real culprits were.
Although Dominic could easily have defended himself by speaking the truth, he told the teacher that he had wanted to save his classmates – who were known pranksters – from certain expulsion. “Besides,” added Dominic, “I remembered that Our Lord said nothing when he was unjustly accused.”
2. React prudently
“He was oppressed, and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” (Is 53:7)
Slander spreads like wildfire in today’s highly networked culture, leading to protracted conflict when rumour is met with denial or counter-rumour. It seems unthinkable to stay silent when one feels attacked. Yet one should discern whether the desire to defend oneself is driven mainly by ego – to keep oneself popular and looking good – or by love for the truth.
St. Gerard Majella was a young lay brother in the Redemptorist Order when a young woman claimed that he had fathered her child. Questioned by his superior, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Gerard stayed silent to spare her reputation further damage. St. Alphonsus had no choice but to punish him, confining him to the convent and barring him from Holy Communion. St. Gerard bore his shame patiently until his accuser, shamed by his sanctity, confessed a few months later.
But silence is not the only virtuous option, and may do more harm than good. St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, was similarly accused of having fathered a child. While he bore no hatred towards his accuser, he discerned the need to defend himself publicly, because the slander was tarnishing the office of the priesthood itself.
While one may choose to walk in Christ’s footsteps by meekly tolerating slights, one has a moral duty to speak out when the lies hurt or mislead others, or undermine faith in God and His Church.
3. Seek the truth
Christians accused of misconduct can – and should – seek to set the record straight using all legitimate avenues of investigation and appeal. Truth is one of the attributes of God Himself, and all of society benefits when the facts are known.
St. Richardis of Swabia endured the humiliation of being publicly accused by her own husband – the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fat – of adultery. To restore her reputation, she claimed a trial by fire – one of the methods of her day of asserting one’s innocence. During the trial, the flames could not touch her even though she was wearing a shirt covered in wax.
4. Trust in God’s justice, not Man’s
God “saves… the needy from the hand of the mighty. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.” (Job 5:15-16)
Saints like Mother MacKillop and Gerard Majella were blessed that they lived to see their names cleared and their reputations restored. But how about those who died without receiving earthly justice, due to a lack of proof or the machinations of their enemies?
French newspapers went into a tizzy in 1974 when the highly respected Jean Cardinal Danielou SJ was found dead in the home of a young Parisian prostitute and nightclub stripper. A large sum of money was found in his pockets. He was later exonerated by his Jesuit order, when they discovered that the Cardinal had gone to give the woman money to bail her husband out of jail.
Bl. Bartolo Longo, an Italian lawyer and lay Dominican, devoted his life to lifting the town of Pompeii out of poverty through prayer, catechesis and education. Although there was no evidence of financial impropriety on his part, some townsfolk gossiped that he was lining his pockets with the funds that he was raising to build the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. Bl. Bartolo died without ever seeing the rumours laid to rest.
Pope Benedict reminds us in his encyclical Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) that God will set all injustices right in the world to come:
“There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope…I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life… God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope.”
Thus, Catholics who are wrongly accused can take heart that God knows their innocence. He will reward their forbearance at the end of time. This knowledge should also help Catholics act prudently and with love, rather than seeking revenge on those who persecute them.
As St. Paul once wrote, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil… Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4:26-27, 29)
Ms Estella Young, OP