Sisters of St Joseph, the order co-founded by Blessed Mary MacKillop, respond to claims made in controversial documentary

The religious congregation co-founded by Blessed Mary MacKillop has confirmed reports that one reason clergy put pressure on a bishop to “destroy” her was that members of the order spoke out about a suspected child-abusing priest.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation programme Compass was scheduled to broadcast on Sunday that angry clergy pressurised Adelaide Bishop Lawrence Shiel to “destroy” the nun after they heard that sisters reported Irish Fr Patrick Keating, from the Kapunda parish north of Adelaide, was allegedly abusing children. The nuns reported the abuse to Blessed MacKillop’s co-founder, Fr Julian Tenison Woods.

Fr Woods then went to the diocesan vicar general, who sent Fr Keating back to Ireland.

The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, in a statement issued to The Record, the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Perth, said: “Mary MacKillop’s excommunication from the Church, for a period of five months from September 1871, is an event that has been comprehensively documented.

“There were several factors that led to this painful period for Mary and the sisters. The reasons for Mary’s excommunication have been written about and commented on in the public domain since that time. This is consistent with the information contained in the Compass programme,” the statement said.

Fr Paul Gardiner, a former postulator for Blessed MacKillop’s canonisation Cause, told Compass that Fr Keating’s fellow Kapunda priest, identified as Fr Horan, “was so angry with this that he swore vengeance – and there’s evidence for this – against Woods by getting at the Josephites and destroying them”.

Fr Gardiner said that Fr Horan, who worked for Bishop Shiel, urged the prelate to break up the nuns.

Sister Kathleen Dawe, a member of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart from Western Australia, said that Blessed MacKillop had visited Pope Pius IX in 1873 to counter a move by clergy against the congregation.

The order’s congregational leader, Sister Anne Derwin, also confirmed that Irish clergy in Adelaide were “determined to bring [Blessed MacKillop] down” by questioning her drinking habits, obedience, the way she governed her order and accusing her of not paying her debts. Blessed MacKillop was cleared of all charges in her lifetime.

After clergy persuaded Bishop Shiel to send Fr Woods to New South Wales, he grew angry at Blessed MacKillop’s “seeming imprudence” when she informed him that she would look for another place where she could follow God’s call.

While Bishop Shiel excommunicated Blessed MacKillop on September 22, 1871, when she was 29, Fr Gardiner said on Compass that the prelate was “a puppet being manipulated by malicious priests. This sounds terrible, but it’s true.”

Bishop Shiel reversed the excommunication order on February 22, 1872, a week before his death, “realising he had been badly advised by clergy”, according to a document that the sisters released to The Record.

Fr Gardiner, now chaplain of the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre where she founded her first school, told The Australian newspaper that the claims published in September were false. Media reported that the future saint was the one to report the priestly abuse and that it was the reason for her excommunication.

He also said he feared the “misleading coverage” was an attempt to take a swipe at the Church and distract the public before Blessed MacKillop’s canonisation at the Vatican this Sunday, on October 17.

Fr Gardiner said: “Early in 1870, the scandal occurred and the Sisters of St Joseph reported it to Fr Tenison Woods, but Mary was in Queensland.”

“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 said. “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.”