Authors Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson continue the discussion they began in the book from Our Sunday Visitor, Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal. Send us feedback at email@example.com. Kindle Edition available for download at amazon.com.
In the weeks leading up to the canonization of St. Mary MacKillop by Pope Benedict XVI last Sunday in Rome, the proposal was made by some that she be honored not only for being a Catholic pioneer and a model for Australians but also as the patron saint of abuse survivors or whistleblowers of sexual abuse by the clergy.
St. Mary endured a sort of persecution by the Bishop Lawrence Shiel of Adelaide and was even excommunicated for five months in 1871 for “disobedience and defiance.” The decree, which has been described as a sham and a farce without force of law, was rescinded by the repentant bishop on his deathbed, but the claim is now being made that the oppression of St. Mary and her community of sisters was motivated by their complaint against a sexually abusive priest. The bishop supposedly gave in to a vengeful campaign by several priests against the nuns for exposing the predator cleric. Media outlets have gone so far as to assert that St. Mary was excommunicated for personally asking to have the abuser punished. The priest in question was removed and sent back to Ireland.
The claim was refuted by the long-time diocesan postulator, Father Paul Gardiner, who worked for 25 years to advance her cause for canonization on the local level. He argued that at the time the incident happened in 1870 St. Mary was away and played no part. Fr. Gardiner added in an interview with the newspaper The Australian that he never made the assertion and that it is “just false - it's the ill will of people who are anxious to see something negative about the Catholic Church. There's already enough mud to throw, though.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph did confirm, however, that the reporting of abuse by the members of the community was one of the reasons for the bishop’s ill-advised actions. Father Gardiner noted that Bishop Shiel realized at the end he had been misled by several of his priests.
Last year, Archbishop Philip Wilson made a formal apology to the Sisters of St. Joseph for the failings of his predecessor.
Regardless of the role of St. Mary in the actual effort to report an abusive priest, the incident was a reflection of her extraordinary life. The bravery of her community even in her absence points to the willingness of the sisters to protect the victims and to help the Church deal with the terrible deeds of an abusive priest.
This places her and her sisters squarely in the tradition of the Church in confronting the sin and crime of abuse even when there are those unwilling to recognize it. She accepted the brief excommunication with obedience and serenity knowing that justice would ultimately prevail. And it did.
During his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed, “I know that her perseverance in the face of adversity, her plea for justice on behalf of those unfairly treated and her practical example of holiness have become a source of inspiration for all Australians.”
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