Catholic canonization raises whistleblower issue

Mary MacKillopDavid Gibson has written an article for Commonweal Magazine suggesting that in 1870 Australian Mother Mary MacKillop participated in blowing the whistle on a priest engaged in sexual abuse of children. Pope Benedict XVI has scheduled a canonization for Mother MacKillop on October 17, 2010. She will then be known as Saint Mary of the Cross, and she would be Australia’s first native born saint. Gibson suggests that she should be the Patron Saint of Whistleblowers.

Gibson cites a documentary by Australia’s ABC television to report that MacKillop had denounced the abuse of children by priests, and suffered excommunication by Bishop Laurence Sheil of Brisbane as a result. Joanna Moorhead of The Guardian has written a similar article. This excommunication is a most famous fact about MacKillop’s life, but details about the grounds for it are unevenly reported. Blogger Sherry Weddell has now posted a detailed account of the events occurring during 1870 in Adelaide, Australia, the city where MacKillop established the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Weddell says that in 1870, some sisters of that monastery reported concerns about Fr. Keating ‘s sexual abuse of children to Fr. Woods, director of the order. Fr. Woods, in turn, passed the concerns up the chain of command, and Fr. Keating was "disciplined" by means of reassignment to Ireland. Fr. Keating’s friend, Fr. Charles Horan, undertook a campaign of vengeance against MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph. This campaign succeeded in getting MacKillop excommunicated for a period of months, and in dissolving the Sisters of St Joseph in Adelaide. Weddel also reports, however, that MacKillop was not in Adelaide during 1870, but rather a thousand miles away in Brisbane. It is unlikely that she could have participated in the 1870 whistleblowing from Brisbane — a two week trip away from Adelaide — until she returned in 1871. Moreover, Bishop Sheil was also away during 1870, at the First Vatican Council.  On his return in 1871, he was ill and dependent on Fr. Horan. While these facts cast doubt on the role MacKillop could have played in raising the 1870 concerns about Fr. Keating, they do not detract from MacKillop’s role as a victim of retaliation. Indeed, even modern whistleblower protections would be ineffective if retaliators had free license to visit harm on those that the true whistleblowers care about. MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph still stand as worthy examples of the whistleblower story:  suffering for the sake of speaking truth to power. 

UPDATE: The Catholic Church officially canonized Saint Mary of the Cross on October 17, 2010.

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