The scene in the London courtroom in 1852 might have been out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with the defendant in simple clerical black standing in the dock before the bewigged representatives of ancient justice. But one of the judges, John Coleridge, a great-nephew of the poet, saw behind the stooped figure of John Henry Newman the shade of the Armada and the ghosts of spies from Douai. Thus the trial of Newman was about more than the slander of which he was accused. As a scion of Oxford, Coleridge, whose own wife Jane Fortescue Seymour had painted a portrait of Newman, resented that the Oxford Movement had been chipping away at the claim of the Established Church to apostolic validity and, worse, that it had become a halfway house to Rome.
Lord Campbell, who was the presiding judge, had authored the Libel Act of 1843: “If any person shall consciously publish any defamatory libel, knowing the same to be false, every such person, being convicted thereof, shall be liable to be imprisoned in the common gaol or house of correction for any term not exceeding two years, and to pay such fine as the court shall award.”
Newman had been arraigned under these provisions, for in a series of lectures on “The Present Position of Catholics in England” he had attracted large audiences, many of literary and political note, with an entertaining display of unfamiliar logic and eloquence during which he had delicately exposed the indelicacies of a defrocked Dominican friar of Naples: “…a profligate under a cowl … ravening after sin.” One court reporter described the man: “He is a plain-featured, middle-sized man, about fifty years of age, and his face is strongly Italian. His forehead is low and receding, his nose prominent, the mouth and the muscles around it full of resolution and courage. He wears a black wig, the hair of which is perfectly straight, and being close shaved, this wig gives to his appearance a certain air of the conventicle. Yet he retains many traces of the Roman Catholic priest, especially in his bearing, enunciation, and features, which have a sort of stealthy grace about them. His eyes are deep-set and lustrous, and with his black hair, dark complexion, and somber, demure aspect, leaves an impression on the mind of the observer by no means agreeable, and not readily to be forgotten.”
Giacinto Achilli, having fled the outraged fathers of various Italian maidens, justified his exploits by what he asserted was a correction of the Petrine claims. He hired himself out to an English No-Popery society called the Evangelical Alliance. The slowly emerging Catholic populace in England was inured to attacks by the crude and sophisticated alike, but it was intolerable to them that audiences were listening to the charmingly accented English of a Neapolitan friar who, having left a long line of defilements in his wake, including the rape of a 15-year-old girl in his church’s sacristy on Good Friday, melodramatically described Rome as the Whore of Babylon. He was forced to flee Malta after at least eighteen sexual offenses. His seductiveness took other forms, to the point of flattering the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Lord Palmerston, for his stilted Italian, which was fashionable in the age of the poetical Brownings, though inferior to the Italian of Newman’s mercurial friend Gladstone. Cultural attitudes were stirred even more by the hysteria following the restoration of the Catholic episcopate to the United Kingdom in 1850, and Cardinal Wiseman did not help matters with his florid letter “From Out the Flaminian Gate,” celebrating the fact. In the mind of the Anglican Archbishop of York, Thomas Musgrave, this was “Rome’s ever wakeful ambition plotting for our captivity and ruin.”
The Achilli Trial, as it came to be known, was one of the judicial dramas of the age. It would have had prime time on today’s television. It began on June 21 in 1852 and lasted five days. One thinks of what the sensitive personality of Newman, whose whole life was consecrated to the “Kindly Light” of truth and whose youthful and aged boast was that he had never sinned against it, endured during the trial. Yet, he was more than Stoic because he was not a pagan Greek bowing to the cruel fate but was luminously a son of serene truth. On the night of his conviction for libel against Achilli, secured after a neglectful Cardinal Wiseman had mislaid corroborative letters, he wrote unperturbed to a correspondent: “I could not help being amused at poor Coleridge’s prose…. I think he wished to impress me, I trust I behaved respectfully, but he must have seen that I was as perfectly unconcerned as if I had been in my own room. I have not been the butt of slander for 20 years for nothing.”
Newman’s legal team was comprised of some of the finest barristers in the land, headed by the colorful Sir Alexander Cockburn. He would serve as Lord Chief Justice from 1875 to 1880, though Queen Victoria refused him a peerage because of his louche private life.
Newman had been subjected to the condescension of Coleridge who lamented Newman’s “deterioration” from the heights of Protestantism. In his personal diary, Coleridge wrote: “Perhaps I have been so much accustomed to hear Newman’s excellence talked of that I have received an exaggerated opinion of him. But I have a feeling that there was something almost out of place in my not merely pronouncing sentence on him, but in a way lecturing him.… Besides, in truth Newman is an over-praised man, he is made an idol of.”
Newman was found guilty by the Queen’s Bench and in the shocked aftermath even The Times observed: “We consider … that a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country, and Roman Catholics will have henceforth only too good reason for asserting that there is no justice for them in cases tending to arouse the Protestant feelings of judges and juries.” In the annals of jurisprudence, the Achilli Trial helped to establish the bounds of the statutory defense of truth under the 1843 Libel Act.
It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Queen’s Court and a moral victory for Newman—he had to pay a nominal fine of £100 but was not kept in custody. Court costs, nonetheless, were nearly the equivalent of two million dollars today, and the donations from home and abroad were a proclamation of universal Catholic solidarity. Newman saved letters from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, towns in the Midwest, and San Francisco. The year after the trial, Newman published his immortal “Lectures on the Idea of a University” and inscribed the volume:
In grateful never-dying remembrance
of his many friends and benefactors,
Living and dead,
At home and abroad,
In Great Britain, Ireland, France,
In Belgium, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Malta,
In North America, and other countries,
Who, by their resolute prayers and penances,
And by their generous stubborn efforts
And by their munificent alms,
Have broken for him the stress
Of a great anxiety
On November 26, Newman wrote reflectively to his sister Jemima: “I consider that the Judges did me a far greater injury than the Jury, for they made me incur the expense, and the long proceeding. I believe they are now much annoyed at the Verdict—but I cannot help saying that educated men and judges have more to answer for when they do wrong, than a vulgar, prejudiced jury.”
It is hard to read those lines without consciousness of those many who now support the attestations of George Cardinal Pell as he stands in the vortex of a cultural tempest malignant in motive and design, preparing to appeal his conviction and sentence of six years in custody, handed down on March 13. Theirs is the assurance from the apostolic fathers familiar with indictments and assaults, that those who endure will by their humiliations produce an abundant harvest. Anti-Catholic hysteria, not unlike that which preceded Newman’s trial, animated charges against Cardinal Pell, indicting him for alleged profane acts witnessed by no one, which would have been impossible under the circumstances. Etymologists have traced the term “kangaroo court” to the makeshift jurisprudence of an Australian immigrant in the United States at the time of the 1849 gold rush—but Australia is the homeland of the marsupial. Cardinal Pell stood against politically correct policies such as contraception, abortion, the Gnostic revision of sexuality, and attempts to teach anthropogenic climate change theories as dogma. These are not welcome opinions in the courts of secular correctness. He also began with unprecedented vigor, not typical in Rome, the task of cleaning the Augean stable of Vatican finances.
The situation now is different from 1852 because George Pell was accused and back then John Henry Newman was at first the accuser. But both subjects have claim to impeccable integrity, as well as being victims of justice miscarried. In the nineteenth century, Giacinto Achilli fled with his ruined reputation to the United States, having abandoned an acknowledged wife and son and at one point threatening suicide after some time in a utopian “free love” community in Oneida, New York. His grave has no mark for his end is unknown. This year, by divine grace and mortal assent, Newman will be raised to the altars.
From a higher bar of consummate justice, Newman has the last word:
What is good, endures; what is evil, comes to naught. As time goes on, the memory will simply pass away from me of whatever has been done in the course of these proceedings, in hostility to me or in insult, whether on the part of those who invoked, or those who administered the law; but the intimate sense will never fade away, will possess me more and more, of the true and tender Providence which has always watched over me for good, and of the power of that religion which is not degenerate from its ancient glory, of zeal or God, and of compassion towards the oppressed.
(Photo credit: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)