Mary MacKillop: Patron Saint of Sexual Abuse Victims?
The 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 Blessed 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 have been well documented in church history books, and widely acknowledged as an almost unprecedented stop on her circuitous path to sainthood. After all, very few saints have been excommunicated—the church’s harshest penalty, which denies reception of any sacraments. 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, a priest) 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, in a nearby parish. Paul Gardiner, S.J., the former postulator 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 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 Society of Jesus, 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 ordinary 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 and blesseds 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 "The Catholic Worker," 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 most frequently stand outside of the official power structure.
Third, any whistleblower, particularly when addressing something as incendiary as the crimes of 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 longstanding role of the prophet, has never reaped 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 friends, 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 this strong woman, this mulier fortis, walks back onto the world’s stage at this moment in time. As one Preface in the Mass says, "O God, you renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers to be the living sign of your saving power."
Fifth, the story shows how remarkably human were the saints. Too 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 human joy—and suffering. The very human saints, however, also led lives, as our 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 reviled or rejected—Joan of Arc, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Aquinas, Mother Guérin 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 in the church: the great wrong righted. (Finally.)
Certainly, as Frederico Lombardi, S.J, 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, active and holy. She is a model for all Catholics, and Christians.
But at this time, abuse victims and their families need all the help they can get—in heaven as on earth. St. Mary MacKillop, pray for them. And for us.
The following gives a present day view and understanding of the experience of survivors of clergy abuse and the continuing cover up. http://www.molestedcatholics.com/Not-in-my-lifetime
Be shocked by the global estimates of the numbers of those sexually abused by Catholic clergy. http://www.molestedcatholics.com/Estimating-the-numbers-global.php#stats
This seems like making excuses for the hierarchy's continued unwillingness to deal with bishops who protected and reassigned priest perpetrators. Human nature to deny the terrible reports? You can't call yourself a teacher of morals and then seek to have it both ways by calling one set of behaviors sin and another set, human nature. You've got to look it all straight on. Until you have one way of talking about all of this, you contribute to the confusion and the pain.
I am afraid to say that all too often, when defending itself on a number of issues related to an all male hierarchy, the Church heralds long-dead female saints as evidence of female leadership, Mother Theresa of Calculta being a notable exception. This month the pope himself is presenting a series of talks on women saints, for example.
I come from Southern Maryland, a 90-mile long penninsula of many churches staffed by Jesuits until the early 1970s. After their departure, pedophile priests were moved en masse, sometimes 2 at a time, into unsuspecting rural parishes. The damage done over decades will someday be researched and come to light - it is almost unimaginable. It isa rare parish that was not affected.
One man from the area tells the story of how he and other altar boys were herded into two separate rooms where 2 different priests demanded ''massages'' of them.
Is it coincidence that the long held rule of stability for parish priests was removed as a requirement about the same time? Was it so these pedophile priests could be moved around?
A priest I know who had his first assignment at a parish in the area was told by his director at seminary that his main work would be counseling victims.
I do hope this new saint will intercede for us in removing from power any bishop or cardinal or pope responsible for this cover-up and their allowing repeated crimes against children over decades. Only then will the spirit of perfidy be exorcised from our churches in Sothern Maryland, where attendance remains the lowest in the state.
I was not motivated by malice in my comment and I am sorry that you think I was. It is simply that characterizing the actions of the bishops as "human nature" gets them off the hook of their responsibility for this calamity in our Church. Maybe it was simply a throw away remark in your essay but to me it tells of the blind spot we are struggling with in our Church.
Full disclosure: I reported one of my siblings to the state for child neglect over 30 years ago because when I held my two month old nephew, I realized that he was holding himself away from me quite rigidly. A very bad sign in an infant. I was a school based social worker at the time. My parents agreed that all was not well but did not welcome my child protection call. I was the pariah in the family for years after making this report.
So I struggle for patience when faced with remarks about human nature in this regard. To me it means that the writer does not comprehend what the cost of child abuse is: sexual or otherwise. Another nephew was sexually assaulted for years in extended family foster care and we didn't hear about it until shorted after his 20th birthday.
Here's the cost: The human structures for trust are all but completely eroded and undermined by childhood abuse so that loving connections and life-giving affection become a cruel mirage for the young human being who is struggling to survive without protection. That human capacity for trust is the subatomic structure of the capacity for love. When this capacity is wounded, the subsequent isolation is agonizing and hellish.
When anyone says it's human nature to turn away from this agony, I must object clearly. It is a painful struggle to face it because once you face it, it changes everything. Mother Mary McKillop probably knows that. May she pray for us!
( shades of Ladislas Orsi questioning the validity of the Bishop of Phoenix's excommunication of a nun). Much concern in Australia was that not just Knights of Malta or Saint Gregory would go to the canonization but also Aborigines. Her order is fondly called the Joeys ( Sisters of Saint Joseph) which, of course, also is the fond name given to the Kangeroo young ones in the pouch. Knowing this new data about Mary will give me something in addition to pray for when I attend her canonization in Saint Peters.
The dialogue also points to the fact that the Catholic press has clerical writers and editors who have and continue to make sweeping positive presumptions.
In addition, it is also the psychologists giving advice to bishops who are, by and large, clerics. Lastly, members of the Catholic academy, especially our community of theologians, should have boldly stepped forward to decry the institutional sins involving this massive cover-up (and should be doing so now), but did and will not, I would assert, because they are also in the main clerics.
Michael Harrington (writer):
I arrived at the Worker shortly after Cardinal Spellman had sent McIntyre down to read the riot act. What was apparently bugging Spellman was that the paper was called the Catholic Worker. What he was angling for, and didn't get, was for [Dorothy] to drop the word ''Catholic.'' He believed [the name] was an attempt to indicate that this was a Catholic position, and he didn't want anybody else speaking for the church. This was the famous occasion when McIntyre said to her, ''What would you do if the cardinal told you to shut down the Catholic Worker?''
She said, ''If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately.'' She was dead serious. That's what drove me crazy. Dorothy really did go around referring to Spellman as ''our dear, sweet cardinal'' and ''the vicar of Christ.''
source: Catholic Worker website.
The comment about STRONG WOMEN being a threat to any organization is certainly an UNDERSTATEMENT when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church. It's a MIRACLE there are ANY women saints at all!!
That Dorothy did not resist berating us teenagers for our passivity and vague interest in the things she cared about so passionately. Is it possible that she turned into someone completely different when confronted by a bullying cardinal?
Frankly, I would be disappointed if that were true.
Anyway, so that's the strand of the Catholic tradition that uses "human nature" in an optimistic sense. (Incidentally, this would also appear to be the view adopted by Madonna in her song "Human Nature" - as she puts it, "and I'm not sorry; it's human nature.") It would seem that Molly was possibly reading "human nature" in this light, and thus objecting to the idea that covering up sex abuse is part of "human nature."
The other strand I guess would be Augustine, or maybe just any less precise use of the term "human nature," using it to mean our fallenness, etc. It seems that's the way Fr. Martin was using it.