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The same bishop who excommunicated MacKillop rescinded the decision on his deathbed five months later.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.