K.V. Turley writes from London.
In 1852 John Henry Newman was brought before a court of law and tried for libel. What became known as the “Achilli Trial” was to cause Newman intense personal anguish because of the threat of imprisonment. But it is also relevant to our times as it involved a good and faithful priest being accused of lying by a sinister priest-predator.
The genesis of the libel trial lay not with Newman but with the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman. It was he who had contributed an article to the Dublin Review magazine about a former Italian priest, Giacinto Achilli, and his immoral behavior. When published in July 1850, the article sank without trace. It did, however, come to the attention of Newman.
At the time, Newman was compiling a series of lectures that became known as Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. These nine lectures were delivered weekly, beginning on June 30 and concluding on Sept. 1, 1851 at the Birmingham Corn Exchange. On July 28, 1851, the fifth lecture entitled, The Logical inconsistency of the Protestant view, was delivered. In it Newman referenced the Wiseman piece, talking of the “extraordinary depravity” of Achilli. Wisely, Newman had consulted lawyers before using the Wiseman article, especially in regard to whether there might be a libel action resulting from its use. The reply he received was that a libel action was possible but unlikely. This was fair estimation given that the article had provoked so little response from any quarter, let alone Achilli.
On arrival in England, Achilli had presented himself as man who had not only escaped the clutches of the Inquisition but as one now set upon exposing the truth about it and Catholicism. The Wiseman article had been a response to the lies being propagated to English audiences by the Italian. In the article, there emerged a picture of Achilli as a rapist, serial seducer and abuser of women. His victims were young and old, married and unmarried, while throughout it all Achilli was a Dominican friar, ordained in 1825. In Newman’s hands this material set Achilli’s account of Catholicism and the Inquisition within the context of the contemporary English Anti-Catholicism. Perhaps Newman’s account proved too eloquent for, as a result, Newman’s words, unlike Wiseman’s article, came to the attention of Achilli.
By August 1851, supported by the anti-Catholic Evangelical Alliance, Achilli’s lawyers gave notice that they intended to serve a libel action on Newman. This concentrated his mind on the facts about the former friar’s conduct as Newman had relied solely upon information set out in the original Dublin Review article. Naturally, he turned to its author for help in confirming what was contained within it. Unfortunately, Cardinal Wiseman was unable to help as he had mislaid the original papers in regard to Achilli. Newman recognized at once the gravity of the situation. He dispatched two fellow Oratorian priests to Italy to find the necessary evidence and witnesses pertaining to Achilli and his conduct.
In the meantime, Newman made his first court appearance. At a preliminary hearing a plea of “not guilty” was entered on his behalf. The omens surrounding the case were not good, however. For a start, Lord John Campbell, the judge appointed to hear the case, was known to be prejudiced against Catholics, and from the beginning of the trial Campbell displayed these sentiments. When a trial date was set for April 1852, Newman left court praying that his confrères in Italy would return with the evidence necessary to exonerate him of the charges he faced.
Because of the nature of what was being investigated, a friend of Newman’s, Maria Rosina Giberne, also went to Italy in December 1851. Her role was to aid the two Oratorian priests already there in marshaling witnesses and evidence. Eventually, witnesses were found.
The waiting for for the court hearing proved particularly difficult for Newman. He appeared at times overwhelmed with anxiety and depression about it and its possible outcome. He wrote the following in a letter during that period:
I anticipated evil from the first. … Lawyers tell me that the chance is I shall have a year’s imprisonment. … I have all my life been speaking about suffering for the truth – now it has come upon me.
Miss Giberne arrived back in England with the Italian witnesses who, it was hoped, would corroborate Newman’s claims about Achilli’s behavior. This news of the arrival of the witnesses was a source of relief to Newman but the presence of Miss Giberne and her charges on English soil alerted Achilli and his legal team. They asked the court for the hearing date to be vacated and a later date to be set. The request was granted, depressingly for Newman. Now he had to continue preparing for this new hearing with his anxiety renewed. An additional headache, not least financially, was the need to keep the Italian witnesses in England for some months until the new court date.
Finally, on June 21, 1852, the trial did proceed. Called to give evidence, Achilli denied all charges. Instead, he claimed he was a victim of the Inquisition on account of his new-found love of Protestantism and his vocal denunciations of Rome and all her nefarious practices. One court observer described Achilli, the former priest, as having a nondescript appearance except for the fact that he wore a wig. Throughout his cross-questioning in court, Achilli gave the impression of a man wrongly accused, misunderstood even; unaware as to why he should be so libeled in the first place. This offended air did not last though. When female witness after female witness took to the witness box his mask of offended innocence started to slip.
The legal case itself was a simple one. Either Achilli was a liar, a seducer and rapist, or his accusers were all liars who had been persuaded to give false testimony by Newman and others. This was the point the jury had to decide. Crucially, following all the witnesses’ evidence, Lord Campbell summed up the case. By all accounts he did so in a biased and prejudicial manner against Newman.
The jury returned a verdict quickly, finding Newman guilty of libel.
Newman’s lawyers appealed to Lord Campbell for a fresh trial. Perhaps predictably, this was refused.
In January 1853 Newman left his room at the Birmingham Oratory to travel to London for sentence. He attended court bracing himself for the worst. In the end, however, Newman was fined a mere 100 pounds. But he did have crippling legal fees to pay — by today’s reckoning a sum worth many millions of pounds.
As it happened, Newman’s fine was paid on the spot by his supporters. Later, the money raised for Newman’s legal expenses was such that the excess was used to construct the impressive Church of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom on Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green, to this day known as the “Newman University Church.”
And what of Achilli?
Many in England no longer saw him as a Protestant victim of the Inquisition. Especially as further evidence had begun to surface of similar predatory behavior against women since his arrival in England. He ceased to be of any use to the cause of English anti-Catholicism, and was promptly dropped by his former supporters. Consequently, Achilli traveled to the New World. It was there he turned up again in a court of law — accused of adultery by his then “wife.” Soon after, it was reported he deserted her and their 8-year-old son. After that, little is known of the fate of Achilli. He was last heard of in 1860, fleeing unpaid debts.
In contrast, the faithful priest Newman paid all his outstanding fines and legal fees. And he is still to be heard of today — on Oct. 13, 2019, he will be declared a saint.