Presumed Guilty

St. Dominic Savio

I just finished reading the book A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys with Jacob by Madeleine L’Engle, famous author of A Wrinkle in Time. This book based on the biblical story of Jacob is quite different. In it L’Engle weaves in many personal experiences. One in particular that she mentions several times was an unsettling one. A friend had revealed a terrible secret to her in strict confidence. When the secret was spread about, Madeleine incorrectly was assumed to be the source. On some nights people called her and condemned her for spilling the secret. Her reputation was tarnished and naturally her feelings were hurt. When she said she hadn’t revealed the secret, Some people believed her but others didn’t.

I can identify with Madeleine. Twice in my life I was accused of stealing. I’m not perfect, but in these cases, I was innocent. Periodically the news reports that someone in prison was proven not guilty and is freed. Imagine what that person and their family have suffered. We recoil at the injustice.

So how do we react when we are falsely accused? We question how this could be. We are hurt and angry. We wonder what others think of us. How could God let this happen? As Christians we are faced with the need to forgive the accuser as well as the real culprit if we know who it is or not. We can be somewhat consoled in knowing that God knows the truth and at the end of the world we will be vindicated! In the meantime, we can offer up our pain for some intention.

Madeleine and I are not the first ones to undergo the humiliation of being thought a perpetrator. In the first century, a man named Jesus was falsely accused by Rome of setting himself up as king when Caesar was the emperor. No one came to his defense. His own people condemned him. For this concocted “crime,” he was put to an ignominious and painful death. His mother and friends also suffered.

It’s one thing to be accused. On the other hand, we can be the accuser. I’ve learned that it is dangerous to jump to conclusions and interpret another person’s actions as wrongdoing. Just as a jury must sift through facts, we need to do that to obtain the truth. Sometimes looks can be deceiving. Moreover, we are not always aware of circumstances and motives. The bishop in Les Miserables is a good example of how to approach a wrongdoer. Instead of turning Jean Valjean over to the police for stealing his silver, he covers for him. The result is that Valjean turns his life around. But Javert, the police inspector is consumed by a desire to punish, an obsession that leads to his suicide.

A related story is told about St. Dominic Savio. When he was eleven years old, a classmate accused him of a serious crime. The teacher did not expel Dominic for this first offense, but scolded him harshly before the class. Dominic didn’t say a word in his defense. Later, when the true culprit was revealed, the teacher asked Dominic why he accepted being thought guilty. Dominic explained that his classmate was already in a great deal of trouble and wanted to give him a chance. I guess that is the difference between a saint like Dominic and the rest of us!

Last year I learned a new word: schadenfreude. It means the joy we feel at the misfortunes of others. Madeleine pointed out a similar not-so-nice feeling. She wrote, “It’s a taint in human nature to like to see someone else do wrong so that we can affirm our own righteousness.” Something to think about.

The truth is that we are all sinners. How blessed we are that our God is a God of mercy and compassion!

• If you’ve been falsely accused, how did you handle it?

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