A timely, positive, abuse story?

It has been some time, let me tell you, since I read a mainstream news report linked to this era of clergy sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church that left me, well, smiling with appreciation. It’s hard to even imagine such a thing, right?

However, note this short news feature from Francis X. Rocca and the specialists at Religion News Service. Read it all.

Mother Mary MacKillop won’t be canonized until Oct. 17, but some Catholics already have an unofficial title for the 19th-century Australian nun: Patron Saint of Whistle-blowers.

MacKillop (1842-1909), Australia’s first native-born saint, was co-founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, an order of nuns dedicated to the religious instruction of children and care for the poor.

The strong-willed MacKillop, who worked under harsh conditions in the Australian outback, was once briefly excommunicated by her bishop for reasons that have never been entirely clear. According to a new Australian television documentary set to air a week before her canonization, at least one of the reasons MacKillop was punished was for denouncing clerical child abuse.

“The story of the excommunication amounts to this: that some priests had been uncovered for being involved in the sexual abuse of children,” the Rev. Paul Gardiner, the official advocate for MacKillop’s canonization, told Australia’s ABC television.

After her denunciation led to disciplining the priests, Gardiner said, “one of these priests was so angry with this that he swore vengeance.”

The same bishop who excommunicated MacKillop rescinded the decision on his deathbed five months later. A short statement from the Sisters of Saint Joseph last week referred to “several factors” leading to MacKillop’s excommunication, and said only that the new documentary’s account is “consistent with” previous studies of the event.

This revelation has earned the praise of the ever-media-friendly Father James Martin — the official Jesuit chaplain of The Colbert Report — so we can expect this label for Mother Mary MacKillop to spread into the mainstream media, if and when mainstream newsrooms cover her canonization rites.

The story does include another point of view, one that says this label — while accurate — is simply too narrow to describe the extraordinary life of the new said. Cue Father Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office:

“The merits of Mother Mary MacKillop, her commitment to children, to the poor, to indigenous peoples, to the dignity of all human persons, were much more extensive than the fact that she denounced an abuser,” Lombardi said.

Nevertheless, this is a news angle that seems undeniable, even if this part of her veneration is informal and driven by voices in pews, rather than part of the saint’s official title. Thus, the story ends with this arrow pointing toward another news event to watch:

“Sister Mary understood that the men who were sexually abusing children were just men and were not representing God,” said Gary Bergeron of Survivor’s Voice, a group that is organizing an international demonstration by abuse victims to be held in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 31.

“Anyone that can be used as an example to protect children is a positive thing,” Bergeron said. “And frankly, we could use all the help we can get.”

Please keep your eyes open for the stories that are almost certain to follow this one. Let’s hope that they are as solid as this report.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The peace and quite that greets a GR post that praises a story in the mainstream press. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to the crickets.

  • Balthasar
  • Julia


    There seems to be more to this story that the article says.

    Lombardi must have been responding to what he read in the papers.

    Perhaps a transcript of the documentary would help.

    And a clearer explanation of her excommunication.

    Even St Teresa of Avila was in fear of the Spanish Inquisition which viewed her activities questionably in light of the fact her grandfather was a converso.

    In fact, lots of Catholics saints were in trouble with the Catholic powers-that-be during their lifetimes, mostly from their local bishops.

  • Peggy

    Since this post is lonely, I’ll comment that I must have dozed off when Fr. Reese was fired from America. I think I vaguely recollect that. But he’s still sought after by the secular media for the “liberal” Catholic point of view. His successor, while he might share Reese’s views, appears to be more politic and balanced in his approach it seems.

    I had never heard of Mother Mary MacKillop. Nice to hear her story and of her upcoming canonization.

  • http://GetReligion.org Bobby

    Maybe GR needs an “Amen” button for positive posts.

  • Julia

    Or a thumbs-up “like” button.

  • Ben

    Okay, let’s stop the crickets and start some controversy. From the article:

    “The timing of this revelation seems providential,” Martin said

    I think the story could have been a lot stronger if there was a line or two about the timing. If I understand the canonization process correctly, this happens after a miracle is attributed to the beatified. Once that occurs and is investigated, does canonization happen pretty quickly? In other words, is the timing on canonization something that’s pretty much outside the hands of the Vatican, or is it something heavily controlled by the Vatican? If the latter, that would give some insight into what types of virtues they are highlighting at any given moment (and obviously would be more linkable to the sex abuse crisis in this case).

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    The official word is out this morning that the Mary MacKillop as whistle-blower scenario is completely untrue, per Fr. Gardiner, the great scholarly expert on Mary’s life and postulator for her cause. I’ve got a blog post up with all the details http://www.siena.org/October-2010/mary-mackillop-the-whistle-that-never-blew.html

    What would really be of interest to Get Religion is the fact that Fr. Gardiner says the transmission of error occurred in the news process itself, that someone “typed” the wrong story. How that occurred and why is a story in itself.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    So the Vatican is wrong too, in saying that the whistle/revenge angle is PART of the story, but not all of it?

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    Tmatt: so far as I know the Vatican never said that Mary was excommunicated *because* she was a whistleblower. That Fr. Keating was an abuser is true – but the formal reason at the time given for Mary’s excommunication was disobedience to her bishop – because she refused to leave the Adelaide convert before speaking to the Bishop because she knew it was a ruse to get her out of the way so that Fr. Horan could attend to disband her community there.

    In retrospect, Fr. Gardiner indicates there were four basic reasons for the distrust that precipitated the excommunication crisis:

    1) the unhealthy fascination of Fr. Woods (the founder) and a few sisters in extraordinary spiritual phenomena
    2) the debts of the Josephites – (due largely to Fr. Woods who, at that point in their development, was the “Director”, their rule had not been approved – so Mary was just the “Guardian”. Fr. Woods had the final say in everything and was extravagant financially because he had had a vision in which he believed the Virgin Mary had promised to provide all they needed)
    3) The distrust between Fr. Woods and most of the other clergy – which was reflected in how they regarded the Sisters who were inextricably linked to him.
    4) the implacable opposition of Fr. Horan who was furious at Fr. Wood for blowing the whistle on an abusing fellow Franciscan. (Mary and the Josephites were the target in an essentially clerical war – not unlike how “client states” were treated by the US and the USSR in the bad old cold war days)

    So yes, there was an abuse component in the background but the real target of that particular piece of backlash was Fr. Woods. And the Bishop’s spur of the moment excommunication of Mary was really all about the appearance of disobedience because Horan, who was acting as the Bishop’s vicar general, persuaded him that the Sisters were resisting his authority.

    Everyone agrees that one cause of the tension was the abuse issue but also that Mary played no personal part in exposing that and it was not the reason that Bishop Sheil excommunicated her.

  • http://www.siena.org Sherry Weddell

    Let’s try that again:

    That Fr. Keating was an abuser is true – but the formal reason at the time given for Mary’s excommunication was disobedience to her bishop. Mary’s “crime” was refusing to leave the Adelaide before speaking to the Bishop because she suspected that Horan’s order that she leave for another city that day or be guilty of disobedience was a ruse to get her out of the way so that Fr. Horan could have a free hand in disbanding the Josephite community in Adelaide.

    I presume I make myself obscure?

  • Julia

    Excommunication for disobedience sounds more in keeping with its typical use.