Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Light One Candle
Reputation – Where’s the Lost and Found?

by Dennis Heaney

(From the Nov. 15, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Dennis Heaney Whether through screaming headlines or whispered words, what immediately captures our attention?

Scandal. When someone offends the moral sensibilities of others, from the inappropriate to the outrageous to the illegal, that’s scandal. Even worse, the malicious gossip that usually follows often damages reputations and can become a scandal itself.

Someone I know told me about an incident that happened to her best friend. The woman faced trumped-up charges of criminal mischief and neighbors pounced on the story. My friend told me that the accused woman “closed herself off because she didn’t want to talk about it, or worse, didn’t want to hear others talking. She stopped going out for dinner, something she loved to do. She even became sick, suffering from ulcers.” Ultimately, the charges were dropped when the so-called witness never appeared in court.

What I found most interesting, though, was the effect the situation had on the two friends. They admitted that until then they had engaged in their share of gossip, but realizing how harmful it could be, they agreed to think twice before judging another person and spreading rumors or scandal.

Many of us are only too willing to make up our minds about the guilt or innocence of someone with incomplete and faulty information. Back in 1987, Raymond Donovan, Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan, was indicted for larceny and fraud in connection with a construction project. He and the other defendants were acquitted and Donovan was also vindicated by an independent counsel. This prompted him to ask a question I’ve never forgotten: “Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?”

Fair point. How does anyone who’s been falsely accused and quickly condemned by others reestablish innocence in the eyes of the world?

True, some seek redress by filing lawsuits against those who caused the greatest harm. But even a settlement can’t change the fact that accusations have a nasty way of sticking, even when they’re unfounded. That’s because explanations never catch up with accusations.

What bothers me most is the part we – average, ordinary people – play in these situations. We stand around water coolers or sit in our living room shooting the breeze with colleagues, friends and family about the latest scandal. Sometimes we convict others of crimes; sometimes, simply of bad behavior, but guilty they must be. There’s no smoke without fire, right? They must have done something, right?

What’s as bad, if not worse, is the way we bad-mouth not only people in the news, but people we know. Have you heard about …? Fill in the blank. The latest hearsay about a neighbor or co-worker gets dissected and spread with stunning nonchalance. What’s wrong with a little gossip? After all, we’re entitled to have an opinion and share it. We’re only human.

I wonder if you or I would feel the same if it were our spouse, or parent, or child who was the one being vilified. Or if it were – Heaven help us! – you or me? But that could never happen. Could it?

(Dennis Heaney is Director of The Christophers, an organization dedicated to the proposition that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. For a free copy of the Christopher News Note “Say it with Love,” write to: The Christophers, 12 E. 48th St., New York, NY 10017; or e-mail:

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