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Mother Mary MacKillop: The Patron Saint of Abuse Victims

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Stunning news that a soon-to-be-saint was excommunicated for urging the church to take action against a sex offender is a reminder of the virulence of the crimes of clerical abuse. And the astonishing story of Mother Mary MacKillop, an Australian sister and co-foundress of a women's religious order, who will be canonized on Oct. 17, says a great deal about sanctity, about sin, about women in the church and, finally, about hope.

The saga of Mother Mary MacKillop's excommunication was thought to be well documented, widely acknowledged as an almost unprecedented stop on her circuitous path to sainthood. After all, few saints have been excommunicated -- the church's harshest penalty, which denies reception of any sacrament to a person. But in 1870 Laurence Sheil, the bishop of Brisbane, formally ejected her from the church. Until recently the story of MacKillop's punishment was understood mainly as the result of a conflict between her (and her co-founder) and the bishop, who cited insubordination as the official reason for this extraordinary move against the foundress of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

But the full story is that Mary MacKillop was excommunicated out of "revenge," in the words of one priest familiar with her life, for her part (and her order's part) in uncovering a case of sex abuse by a Father Keating. The Rev. Paul Gardiner, the man in charge of MacKillop's canonization process, told an Australian television documentary a few days ago, "Priests being annoyed that somebody had uncovered it -- that would probably be the way of describing it -- and being so angry that the destruction of the Josephites was decided on." A statement from the Sisters of St. Joseph has confirmed that the documentary's reports are "consistent with" studies of the event.

A fuller story comes from CathNews, an Australian Catholic news agency:

MacKillop and the Josephite sisters reported the abuse to the vicar-general [the bishop's second-in-command] and disciplinary action was taken against Keating, humiliating him and angering a Father Charles Horan, who was close to Bishop Sheil. Horan is believed to have harboured a grudge against MacKillop and the whistleblowers in her order, and used his influence over the bishop to manipulate him into throwing the nun out of the church. Bishop Sheil revoked the punishment on his death bed some five months later, according to official accounts.

What does it mean for a saint to have done this?

First, it is no surprise that a saint found herself in conflict with the church -- even with the official hierarchy. This has been the experience of several saints. St. Joan of Arc, to take the most extreme example, was burned at the stake in 1431 after being convicted by an (English) ecclesiastical court. St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, was thrown into jail several times by the Inquisition, who were suspicious of his writings. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of all medieval Catholic theologians, found his own writings under ecclesiastical censure in the 13th century. St. Bernadette Soubirous, the famous visionary of Lourdes, was summarily tossed out of the town's rectory after recounting her seemingly outlandish stories in 1858.

And the most recently canonized American saint, Mother Theodore Guérin, another foundress -- of the Sisters of Providence of St-Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana -- was instructed by her local bishop to resign from her religious order and leave the state. At one point the bishop locked her in the rectory until her sisters set her free.

Second, notice how many of those saints were women. A powerful woman in almost any organization -- religious or otherwise -- is frequently seen as a threat to the male leadership. Running through the lives of women saints are notable stories of conflict with church officials -- and laymen as well. Dorothy Day, the American-born founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and a faithful and pious Catholic, was once informed by Francis Cardinal Spellman, the powerful archbishop of New York, that she shouldn't use the word "Catholic" for her newspaper, which sought to help the poor and marginalized in the inner city. She too is now on track for sainthood.

Yet despite such opposition, women managed to found religious orders, run hospitals, manage colleges and high schools, and care for the sick and the poor. Women are also often better able to see what Pope Benedict XVI recently called "sin inside the church" since they frequently stand outside of the power structure.

Third, any whistleblower, particularly when addressing something as incendiary as sexual abuse, then or now, is bound to face serious, even extreme, opposition. It is human nature not to want to hear such terrible reports. And telling the truth to power, the traditional role of the prophet, has never garnered gratitude from those to whom the truth is told. The prophet will face a dismissive attitude, veiled contempt, hostile denials, suggestions that they are blowing things out of proportion, or, as in the case of Mary MacKillop and the Josephite Sisters, outright punishment. Only recently has the church begun to see whistleblowers as necessary -- and holy.

Fourth, victims and victims' families now have someone new to pray for them in their struggles for justice and reconciliation. In Catholic theology, the saint traditionally serves as both companion (that is, as an example in the Christian way) and as patron (the one who prays for them in heaven.) The patron saint is usually connected in a personal way to the people for whom they pray; some small element of their life makes them the go-to person for those of us on earth seeking some special prayers. Fishermen (and women) may pray to St. Peter, a fisherman, to intercede on their behalf. Mothers pray often for the help of St. Monica, the long-suffering mother of St. Augustine.

Now victims of sex abuse and their families, and all who desire reconciliation and healing in the church, can pray to Mary MacKillop, who understands them perhaps better than any other saint. Perhaps it is providential that she walks back onto the world's stage again.

Fifth, the story shows how remarkably human were the saints. Often thought of as creatures far removed from the earthly realities that we mortals face, the saints led complicated lives replete with every kind of joy -- and suffering. The very human saints, however, also led lives, as tradition has it, of "heroic virtue." And what is more heroic than standing up for a victim -- even when that advocacy costs you membership in the church that you love so dearly?

Finally, that the Catholic Church canonizes those it once rejected -- Joan of Arc, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, and now Mary MacKillop -- says a great deal about the true wisdom of the church, and its ability, especially in the canonization process, to recognize publicly its own failings and mistakes. This has always been a sign of hope: the great wrong righted. (Finally.)

Certainly, as Frederico Lombardi, SJ, the director of the Vatican Press Office, said in response to this news, Mary MacKillop's role is far richer than simply this one particular episode of her life. Father Lombardi is right: the soon-to-be-saint's life cannot be reduced to a single event: the redoubtable Australian founded a religious order, taught children, worked with the poor and in her lifetime was renowned for her holiness. Her life was full, rich and holy. She is a model for all Catholics, and Christians.

But at this time abuse victims need all the help they can get -- in heaven as on earth. St. Mary MacKillop, pray for them. And for us.

James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints. This essay was adapted from an essay on "In All Things."