Detraction, Calumny, and Fr. John Corapi

A Case Study in Moral Theology

Two men engage in gossip. Hans Neleman/Creative RM/Getty Images

What Are Detraction and Calumny?

In comments on my articles on the strange case of Fr. John Corapi, many defenders of Father Corapi accused those who discussed the case of detraction. From the way in which these readers used the word, it became clear that there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes detraction. A few readers also used the word calumny, which is what most of those who used detraction actually meant.

To put it in simple terms, calumny is the telling of a lie about someone, almost always with malicious intent—for instance, to damage his reputation. Detraction, on the other hand, is the telling of the truth about someone to a third party who has no right to that truth. Detraction is often done with malicious intent as well, but not always.

In more common terms, most of what we call gossip is detraction; most of what we call backbiting is calumny. The Catechism of the Catholic Church classifies detraction and calumny as "offenses against the truth" (and specifically, as the venerable Baltimore Catechism notes, both are violations of the Eighth Commandment). Both are sins, which can be either venial or mortal, depending on their intent and effects. Even when committed carelessly, without malicious intent, detraction and calumny can cause grave damage to the person being discussed, and the person guilty of detraction or calumny has an obligation to try to repair the damage done by his action.

Most defenders of Father Corapi who accused others of detraction also made it clear that they did not believe that the allegations made against Father Corapi were true. In that case, the proper word to have used was calumny. Those who thought that the allegations might be true but believed that they should not be discussed publicly were correct when they used the word detraction.

To better illustrate the difference between the two words and the proper use of each, in this article I discuss the actions of each of the main players in the case of Father Corapi: first the accuser; then Father Corapi's superiors in the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT); and finally the "Black Sheep Dog" himself.

The point of this article is not to determine who is telling the truth and who isn't. In fact, in each section below, I discuss the actions of the player in question by alternately assuming the truth and falsity of each public statement. This is an exercise in the clarification of terms, not of finger-pointing; my intent is to help readers come to a better understanding of the differences between detraction and calumny, using real-life examples.

The Accuser

First, let's look at the two terms through a discussion of Father Corapi's accuser. This is the best place to start, not only because it was her action that set events in motion, but because it presents us with the most simple situation.

That situation comes when we assume that the allegations the accuser made are false. Assuming further that she knows them to be false, then, in this scenario, the accuser would be guilty of calumny: She told lies about Father Corapi with malicious intent.

But what if the accuser made false allegations but somehow did not know them to be false? Consider, for instance, the possibility that she suffers from some sort of mental illness, or that she fantasized about a life with Father Corapi that never occurred until that fantasy took on a life of its own, and she could no longer distinguish the fantasy from reality.

In that case, Father Corapi's accuser might have engaged in something that could objectively be called calumny, but her own culpability—guilt—for her action would be greatly lessened. Even so, assuming that she came to her senses later and realized that the allegations she had made were false, she would still be obliged to try to restore Father Corapi's good name.

What if, on the other hand, the allegations the accuser have made are true?

Would she, by the fact of their truthfulness, be morally blameless for making them?

Not necessarily. It all depends on whom she made the allegations to, and why she made the allegations. She could still be guilty of detraction if she did not have (in the words of Paragraph 2477 the Catechism of the Catholic Church) an "objectively valid reason" to make the allegations, or if she disclosed Father Corapi's actions to "persons who did not know them" and did "not have the right to know" them.

In this case, the situation is perhaps more ambiguous than it might at first appear. Assuming that the allegations are true, the "objectively valid reason" should be met by the fact that Father Corapi's alleged behavior is not befitting a priest. But did everyone that the accuser inform have the right to know of Father Corapi's failings?

According to the civil lawsuit that Father Corapi filed against his accuser, she made the allegations in a letter to "numerous third parties including the Chancellor of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Our Lady of Corpus Christi (SOLT), the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Boson [sic]."

Officials of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and of the diocese of Corpus Christi have a right to know the things that the accuser alleged, since both have canonical authority over Father Corapi. But why notify the archdioceses of Chicago and Boston, and possibly other third parties as well?

We may never know the accuser's justification for doing so, but if she did not have reason to believe that each of the third parties to whom she sent the letter had the right to know of Father Corapi's actions, it is possible that she could have told the truth and yet still might not have acted properly.

To put it in concrete terms: The accuser may have been perfectly justified in informing the diocese of Corpus Christi and Father Corapi's superiors in SOLT, but may have been guilty of detraction by informing other third parties, such as the archdioceses of Chicago and Boston.

(Please note: I am not saying that she is guilty of detraction but that she could be. Without further information, there's no way for an outside observer to tell.)

That's why discussing an actual case is so useful in helping explain detraction and calumny. Like other such sins, both are intimately bound up with intent and circumstances. What may appear objectively to be calumny may not be sinful, if the person who commits it does not believe she is telling a lie; what may be detraction in certain circumstances (when told to someone who has no right to know it) may not be in others (when the person to whom it is told, say, has authority over the person under discussion).

The Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT)

When most of Father Corapi's defenders have spoken of calumny or detraction, they have been referring to the actions of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, the religious order (technically, an "apostolic institute of diocesan right") to which Father Corapi belongs. They have generally made the argument that SOLT should have handled the situation privately and quietly, without any public statements.

And indeed, if SOLT had been able to do so, there would be nothing to discuss in this section. By definition, there can be no question of detraction if matters are kept quiet, and only those who have a right to know the truth are informed of it.

But why did I write "had SOLT been able to do so"? Wouldn't it simply have been a matter of not saying anything publicly? It could have been, but as circumstances unfolded, the leadership of SOLT seems to have believed that they had to make public statements.

In dozens of comments on my pieces on Father Corapi, readers have written that SOLT made a grave error by making the allegations against Father Corapi public. But SOLT didn't do so. Father Corapi did. It was Father Corapi who made the first public statement concerning the case, back on Ash Wednesday 2011. SOLT responded to his statement with their own statement confirming that allegations had been made and were being investigated. Of the two statements, Father Corapi's was the more detailed.

The same pattern occurred in June 2011. On June 17, Father Corapi announced that he was leaving his priestly ministry. It was three days later, on June 20, that SOLT issued a statement confirming that they had received a letter from Father Corapi to that effect. In that statement, they discussed in general terms the investigation that they had conducted, but again, Father Corapi's statement was the more detailed of the two.

The first time that SOLT issued a statement before Father Corapi did was on July 5, and it was a bombshell, not only listing the allegations that had been made against Father Corapi but discussing what SOLT's investigative committee had found before Father Corapi's June 17 resignation had brought the investigation to a halt.

So essentially we have two different situations. First, SOLT issued two statements in response to statements made by Father Corapi; and second, SOLT issued a statement that represented the first public listing of the allegations in full.

There are very few people who believe that the leadership of SOLT knows the allegations to be false but has discussed them publicly nonetheless. That would be the only circumstance under which the charge of calumny might apply against SOLT. But if the allegations are true, might SOLT's actions still amount to detraction?

What I find most interesting about SOLT's July 5 statement is that they seem to have considered this very question. Recall these lines from the beginning of the statement:

While SOLT does not typically comment publicly on personnel matters, it recognizes that Fr. John Corapi, through his ministry, has inspired thousands of faithful Catholics, many of whom continue to express their support of him. SOLT also recognizes that Fr. Corapi is now misleading these individuals through his false statements and characterizations. It is for these Catholics that SOLT, by means of this announcement, seeks to set the record straight.

And then consider that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 2477) states that he is guilty of detraction who, "without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them."

In its statement, SOLT seems to be attempting to establish the "objectively valid reason" (i.e., the misleading of "thousands of faithful Catholics" by Father Corapi) for "disclos[ing] another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them." (One reason, for instance, that "thousands of faithful Catholics" might find themselves misled by Father Corapi is because they have found his previous talks and writings so edifying, and are therefore inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

At the very least, SOLT's statement seems to indicate that they believe that the disclosure of the allegations and of the preliminary results of the investigation might have left them open to the charge of detraction. In the end, it comes down to this: If the allegations are true, and Father Corapi's statements therefore are false, he is indeed misleading "thousands of faithful Catholics" in a way that might put their souls in danger. Under those circumstances, SOLT most likely did not engage in detraction by making the statement, because (since the investigation had been halted by Father Corapi's resignation) there was no other obvious way to protect those faithful Catholics from being misled.

If, on the other hand, the allegations are true but SOLT does not really believe that Father Corapi is endangering the souls of "thousands of faithful Catholics"—if, in other words, they simply used that as an excuse to reveal the full extent of Father Corapi's sins to people who did not know them—then that would be detraction.

So which is it? We may never know for certain. However, Father Corapi has shown that he is willing to use the secular legal system to clear his name. By not only repeating all of the accuser's allegations but stating that its investigative committee has confirmed most of them, SOLT has opened itself up to the same type of civil suit that Father Corapi filed against his accuser. His willingness—or lack thereof—to file such a suit may provide a clue.

Update, April 2016: A full five years later, Father Corapi has never filed a lawsuit against SOLT.

Fr. John Corapi, aka The Black Sheep Dog

Whatever opinions one may hold about Father Corapi and the likelihood of his guilt or innocence, one thing is clear: John Corapi, as he has repeatedly said, is not a man who plans to "lay down and die." In speaking out in his own defense, he has not minced words about either his accuser or his superiors in his religious order. But could the things he has said amount to either detraction or calumny?

Obviously, if Father Corapi is guilty of the actions of which he has been accused, the answer is simple: In accusing his accuser of lying, and in claiming that his religious order and the bishop of Corpus Christi want him "to be gone," Father Corapi would be guilty of calumny. If the things his accuser have said are true, the only way he would not be guilty of calumny would be if he is somehow unable properly to distinguish truth and falsity—if, for instance, he is mentally ill.

But what if his accuser lied, and Father Corapi did none of the things of which she has accused him? Wouldn't the answer then be simple, too? After all, if Father Corapi is simply defending himself against false charges, how could he possibly be guilty of detraction or calumny?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Father Corapi certainly has a right to defend himself against unjust accusations, but he has to do so justly. For instance, he cannot decide that he will counter a lie with a lie. In the course of his defense, Father Corapi has said a number of things about his accuser that are quite damaging to her reputation. If any of those things are untrue, Father Corapi would be guilty of calumny, even if his accuser has lied about him.

We saw above that circumstances can make the difference between detraction and mere truth-telling. Here, we see the opposite about calumny: If you tell someone a lie about a third person, it doesn't matter if that third person has also been telling lies about you. Two wrongs—hers and yours—do not make a right.

Let's continue to assume that Father Corapi's accuser made up her accusations entirely, but now let's assume that everything Father Corapi has said about her is true. He obviously isn't guilty of calumny, then, since calumny requires telling a lie. But could he have engaged in detraction?

Possibly. Remember that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that a person is guilty of detraction if he, "without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them." Is self-defense an objectively valid reason? Under most circumstances, probably yes. The things Father Corapi has said about his accuser undercut her credibility, and therefore make her allegations against him seem less likely.

Yet the person who is defending himself must still mount his defense proportionately. He cannot engage in the moral equivalent of the old Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. In other words, if someone lies about you to your boss, you cannot turn around and reveal every bad thing you know about her to the entire world.

And that brings us to an important point. As I discussed above, neither the accuser nor SOLT made the allegations against Father Corapi public. It was Father Corapi who did that. Having done so, he's not exactly in the best position to make the argument that he had an "objectively valid reason" to reveal his accuser's sins.

Of course, it might have been hard for Father Corapi to remain silent, since the suspension of his priestly ministry during the period of the investigation required him to cancel large public events. Questions would have been asked, and he would have to provide at the very least some vague yet truthful answer. Yet in deciding it was better to get the allegations out into the open at the very beginning, he actually opened himself up to the charge of detraction. The best we can say (if we continue to assume his innocence) is that he was in a Catch-22—damned if he did; damned if he didn't.

Finally, there's the matter of Father Corapi's civil lawsuit against his accuser. Under normal circumstances, a civil lawsuit is a public document, and the material contained therein can be detrimental to the defendant. For instance, while the accuser has so far declined to make a public statement about her allegations, the lawsuit (naturally) lists her name. It also details many (though not all) of the allegations that she made against Father Corapi, including some which make her look pretty bad. For example, in making the allegations, she admits things about her past and indicates that her alleged illicit actions with Father Corapi were consensual.

And so we arrive at a very unusual point. Let's assume one last time that the accuser is telling the truth. Even though one cannot normally be guilty of both detraction and calumny as the result of a single statement (calumny requires telling a lie; detraction requires telling the truth), in this situation Father Corapi would be guilty not only of calumny (because he insists that his accuser is lying) but of detraction, because in the lawsuit he has publicly revealed her sins.