Giovanni Giacinto Achilli (Italian pronunciation: [dʒoˈvanni dʒaˈtʃinto aˈkilli]; c. 1803 – c. 1860) was an Italian Roman Catholic who was discharged from the priesthood for sexual misconduct and subsequently became a fervent advocate of the Protestant evangelical cause. He is particularly notable for his activities in England and for launching a successful criminal prosecution against John Henry Newman for libel.
Early life as a priest
On 16 June 1841, the Roman Inquisition finally lost patience and permanently suspended Achilli from the cure of souls, sentencing him to three years' penance at a remote monastery at San Nazzaro. However, in 1842, Achilli made his way to Corfu, then a British protectorate, and claimed political asylum alleging that he was a cavaliere and that he had escaped from the fortress at Ancona. The local authorities were minded to grant the papal consul's request for extradition until they discovered that Achilli was claiming to have converted to Protestantism and was engaged in fervent anti-Catholic propaganda, largely under the influence of Isaac Lowndes, the Scottish presbyterian secretary of the Bible Society. However, this did not deter Achilli from more sexual escapades, seductions and affairs. He made alliances with exiled Italian nationalists but they were later to denounce him when he dishonestly took advantage of them.
Malta and England
After establishing himself in Malta in 1846, opening an Italian church, in May 1847 he travelled to London. There, the committee of the Protestant College of St Julian's, Malta, appointed him professor with a special mission to spread Protestantism to Italy. However, during his absence from Malta, two of his fellow protestant preachers were accused of "fornication" and it was further alleged that Achilli had encouraged them in their misconduct. Achilli returned to Malta in December but was dismissed by the London committee, along with his fellow accused, in May 1848.
Following the revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states, Rome was in the hands of Italian nationalists who established the Roman Republic in February 1849. Achilli travelled there in early 1849 and continued his Protestant, anti-Catholic and pro-nationalist propaganda. On 24 June 1849 he married Josephine Hely, the youngest daughter of Captain James Hely, whose family he had befriended when in England.
The Roman Republic fell in June 1849 when the French took the city and reinstated Pope Pius IX's political authority. Though French president Louis Napoleon had requested that the Pope grant an amnesty, Achilli was arrested by the Cardinal Vicar and imprisoned by the Inquisition, in the Castel Sant'Angelo, for preaching against the Catholic religion and taking part in revolutionary agitation. There Augustin Theiner attempted to reconvert him to Catholicism, to no avail. Lewis Tonna and other London evangelicals canvassed the French government in October 1849 and succeeding in effecting Achilli's release.
England and controversy
Achilli's evangelical supporters brought him to England and established him in an Italian chapel under the aegis of the Evangelical Alliance. A series of antagonistic pamphlets established itself between Eardley and prominent English Catholic Cardinal Wiseman, by turns defending and attacking Achilli. In the meantime, Achilli was accused of raping or assaulting four of his domestic servants and a further young woman. In 1850, Pius IX re-established the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England and Wales (see Roman Catholicism in Great Britain:The Catholic Revival in the Nineteenth Century) and excited popular religious divisions. John Henry Newman was minded to repeat Wiseman's allegations, of sexual immorality and that Achilli had misrepresented his expulsion from the Catholic Church, in a lecture but first took legal advice, on 16 July, from his confidante James Hope-Scott for fear of a libel suit.
Could you off hand answer me a question? Could I be had up for a libel, in criminal court or civil, for saying against Dr. Achilli the contents of the Article in the Dublin, since published as a pamphlet? I can't make out he has answered it. It contains the gravest charges, ... with many of the legal documents proving them.
Hope-Scott was reassuring, expressing the opinion that an action was possible but not probable and that the risk was worth taking. Newman delivered his lecture on 28 July 1850. In August, The Evangelical Alliance gave notice that they intended to support Achilli in a libel action against Newman.
Newman's trial for libel
Achilli offered a compromise but Newman felt that he could not admit any culpability. Such an admission would taint Wiseman and the wider church in addition to himself. Newman asked Wiseman for whatever documentary evidence he possessed but Wiseman, unworldly at the best of times, was distracted by other matters and could offer nothing.
In November 1851, Achilli swore an affidavit denying the allegations made against him. This enabled him to bring criminal proceedings for the common law offence of defamatory libel against Newman, rather than a simple civil action for damages. Newman was liable to maximum sentence of an unlimited fine or a year's imprisonment.
The trial began on 21 June and lasted five days. The Attorney-General Sir Frederic Thesiger led for the prosecution, assisted by Solicitor-General Sir Fitzroy Kelly. Newman was supported by a formidable team of lawyers led by Sir Alexander Cockburn and including sympathetic Anglo-Catholic Edward Lowth Badeley. Henry Matthews had advised Newman to plead justification, that the allegations were true, and the English libel law put the burden of proof on Newman. Newman sent a deputation abroad to gather evidence and they returned with some of Achilli's victims from Italy and Malta, willing to give evidence. However, the presiding judge, John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell, refused the witnesses' testimony and allegedly fuelled the jury's prejudice against Newman. Judge Campbell was the first judge to admit a document from the Roman Inquisition as evidence in an English court.
Newman was convicted of libel on 25 June 1852. It was found that he had failed to justify 22 of the 23 charges. On 31 January 1853, he was fined £100 (£8,800 at 2003 prices). His £12,000 legal costs (£1 million at 2003 prices) were borne by an international public subscription among Catholics.
After the trial
... indecorous in their nature, unsatisfactory in their result, and little calculated to increase the respect of the people for the administration of justice or the estimation by foreign nations of the English name and character. We consider that a great blow has been given to the administration of justice in this country, and that Roman Catholics will henceforth have 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.
The outcome of the trial was a Pyrrhic victory for Achilli whose reputation was ruined. He travelled to the US in 1853 with the Swedenborgians and worked for the American Bible Union on translating the New Testament into Italian. He sent his wife to Italy and, in 1859 found himself in court accused of adultery with a Miss Bogue. In 1860, he disappeared, leaving his eldest son, aged eight, to the care of Miss Bogue and writing a note implying that he intended suicide. Nothing more is known of him.
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