Claim that Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for speaking out against an abusive priest is an invention, says Fr Gardiner

Claims that Blessed Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for speaking out about an abusive priest are false, according to the postulator of her Cause.

Recent media reports have said that Mary MacKillop had been excommunicated for speaking out against clerical child sex abuse in Australia, citing a documentary made by Australian television.

Fr Paul Gardiner, the world’s leading authority on MacKillop and a key source for the documentary, said his words had been twisted by the media to suit their “ill will”. Both he and the programme’s executive producer have denied ever making such an inference.

Mary MacKillop was born in Melbourne to Scottish immigrant parents in 1842 and became a nun in 1866. The following year, she became the first nun, co-founder and mother superior of the newly formed order of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, or simply the Josephites. Dedicated to the welfare of the poor, it was the first religious order founded by an Australian.

In 1871, Sister MacKillop was excommunicated by Bishop Lawrence Shiel of Adelaide, supposedly for insubordination.

The media had reported that Sister MacKillop discovered children were being abused by Fr Patrick Keating, an Irish priest, in Kapunda parish near Adelaide, and reported him to the director of the Josephites, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods. Fr Keating was eventually sent back to Ireland.

In response to the reports Fr James Martin, an American Jesuit, suggested that Mary MacKillop be made patron saint of abuse victims.

But Fr Gardiner told The Australian newspaper: “Early in 1870, the scandal occurred and the Sisters of Saint Joseph reported it to Fr Tenison Woods, but Mary was in Queensland and no one was worried about her.
There was a long chain of causation. Somehow or other, somebody typed it up as if to say I said Mary MacKillop was the one to report the sex abuse.”

Fr Gardiner believes the reports are an attempt to slander the Church and create negative publicity ahead of MacKillop’s canonisation on October 17.

“I never said it – it’s just false – it’s the ill will of people who are anxious to see something negative about the Catholic Church. There’s already enough mud to throw, though.”

Ross Hepp, the executive producer of Compass, a weekly documentary programme, has also shed doubt on the media reports. She told The Australian that the documentary on MacKillop does not claim she was excommunicated over her reporting of clerical sex abuse.

“At no stage … is it claimed Mary MacKillop was excommunicated because she personally reported instances of abuse to the Catholic Church,” she said. The documentary will be aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this Sunday.