Pope Benedict XVI has for months been battered by criticism over his history of dealing quietly with sex abuse by clergy, but in October he could make his most eloquent response yet when he canonizes a 19th-century Australian nun who was once excommunicated in part because she complained about priests who molested children.
Mother Mary MacKillop, co-founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, an order dedicated to the religious instruction of children and care for the poor, will be Australia's first native-born saint when Benedict canonizes her at a Mass at St. Peter's in Rome.
But MacKillop was always an unlikely candidate for sainthood because she had a reputation for "insubordination" and she was excommunicated for several months by her bishop for reasons that were never clear.
Now a new documentary set to air on Australia's ABC television reveals that a major reason MacKillop was banished in 1871 by Bishop Laurence Sheil of Brisbane -- she was 29 at the time -- was because she denounced the abuse of children by priests.
"The story of the excommunication amounts to this: that some priests had been uncovered for being involved in the sexual abuse of children," Father Paul Gardiner, the official advocate for MacKillop's canonization, says in the documentary.
Gardiner said that when MacKillop's complaints led at least one priest to be disciplined, one of his fellow priests "was so angry with this that he swore vengeance." The priest, Father Charles Horan, used his influence with Bishop Sheil to have MacKillop excommunicated.
"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 [MacKillop's order] was decided on," Father Gardiner told ABC
In February 1872, five months after the excommunication and as he lay on his deathbed, Bishop Sheil rescinded the edict and MacKillop
, a strong-willed woman who labored in the Australian outback, continued her life of service and energetic advocacy until her death in 1909.
A statement from MacKillop's order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, confirmed that the documentary's reports are "consistent with" the facts of her life.
"If the facts support that account, then she should be looked to for her intercession by all who seek justice in the sex abuse crisis," Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York and author of a popular book, "My Life With the Saints," told Religion News Service
"The timing of this revelation seems providential," Martin added, referring to the current round of revelations of the sexual abuse of children by clergy. "Maybe there is a reason that Mary MacKillop is walking back onto the international stage at this time."
Some are already calling MacKillop the church's "Patron Saint of Whistleblowers," but it doesn't seem that church authorities are eager to make her an icon of the era of abuse.
Portraying MacKillop as the protector of abuse victims would "reduce the extraordinary richness of her work to a very marginal episode in her life," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told RNS.
"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.
And Father Gardiner, the champion of her cause for sainthood, preferred to characterize the episode as "a nasty footnote to a heroic story, and I don't think media people should take it as though it's the main story, particularly since they've got a lot of closer, modern scandals occurring in the Catholic Church to concentrate on."
"Why tarnish the occasion of Mary's canonization with this miserable bit of scandal?" he said
The answer to that question may be provided by the pope himself when he canonizes her on Oct. 17.
When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and an influential official at the Vatican before his election as pope, Benedict was revolted by reports of sexual abuse of clergy but always tried to deal with it quietly, and he denounced media reports about abuse as willfully exaggerated.
Since becoming pope in 2005, Benedict has taken a much more assertive stance against clergy abusers, denouncing their crimes and meeting privately with victims, as he did again during his visit to Great Britain in September. But he does not like to highlight or discuss the issue in any detail, and seems unlikely to make MacKillop's excommunication a focus of her canonization.
Then again, as Father Martin noted
, even canonization and formal elevation to sainthood cannot obscure the fact that many saints were rebels within the church, and many of them were women -- from Joan of Arc to Dorothy Day, the American-born founder of the Catholic Worker movement who is now up for sainthood. ("Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily," Day once said.)
In the end, MacKillop's canonization could do more for a scandal-weary church than anything else, and at the same time prove again Flannery O'Connor's adage that "you suffer as much from the church as for it."