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Australia's New Saint Also Dealt With Sex Abuse Scandal

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Australia's New Saint Also Dealt With Sex Abuse Scandal

Religion

Australia's New Saint Also Dealt With Sex Abuse Scandal

Australia's New Saint Also Dealt With Sex Abuse Scandal

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This Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Australia's first saint, Mother Mary MacKillop. In 1871, MacKillop was briefly excommunicated for insubordination after her order of nuns reported a case of child sex abuse by a priest. Liane Hansen speaks with James Martin, who, in a recent op-ed in the Catholic weekly, America, called MacKillop "a saint for our time."

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Speaking of sinners and saints, in a ceremony at the Vatican today, Pope Benedict XVI ushered a new saint into the Roman Catholic canon. Mother Mary Mackillop is the first Australian to be canonized. In 1866, Mackillop helped found an order of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. The sisters were, and still are, dedicated to working with children in the remote areas of Australia's outback.

Father James Martin is with the Jesuit magazine America. He wrote an editorial this past week calling Mackillop a saint for our time. He joins us from New York. Welcome, Father Martin.

Father JAMES MARTIN (America Magazine): Nice to be with you.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about who she was and how she came to found this order.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, she came from a large Catholic family. She was born in 1842, eight kids. She had started to work with poor children as a governess and she came into contact with a priest named Father Julian Tennyson Woods. And together they realized that a lot of the children in the outback and the remote areas weren't being served and so she started to teach them. And then that led to the founding, along with Father Woods, of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

And, you know, she's doing that at a very young age. She's around 25 when she helps to found the order.

HANSEN: Wow. How did she come to be considered for sainthood?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, a lot of the religious orders founders are really looked at, you know, carefully for their holy lives. She worked with the poor and she also underwent a great deal of suffering in her life. She was among very few saints. She was excommunicated and she sort of bore that with great dignity.

HANSEN: She was excommunicated. It was for a brief period, right, in 1871? Why was she excommunicated?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it's very complicated. The official reason was insubordination. Now, powerful women, especially a young woman in that time, would've been very threatening to bishops who wanted to sort of keep women's orders under their control. But also it was revealed recently that her sisters had unearthed a case of sex abuse. And to sort of punish her, in a sense, a friend of the guy who was abused had manipulated the bishop into excommunicating Mother Mackillop. And so she really suffered, you know, as a result of the sex abuse that had occurred. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A friend of the ACCUSED, not abused.]

HANSEN: It did take a lot of grit for her - for them to call out a priest for sex abuse in those days. I mean, we're talking the turn of the century.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, of course. I mean, imagine a sister in Australia sort of pointing the finger and then imagine Mother Mackillop having to stand up for her sisters. When I heard the news of this, I was quite moved and I thought it's quite providential that she's stepping back on the world stage at this time.

HANSEN: So, why was the excommunication order revoked later?

Mr. MARTIN: I think within a few months, Bishop Shield, the person who had issued the excommunication, really, you know, realized the wrong that he had done against Mother Mackillop and on his death bed, I think, recanted. But, you know, she continued to have problems with bishops. After that, a few years later, another bishop who didn't like her, you know, exercising so much control over the order that she had founded removed her in a sense and placed another woman as mother general.

So, the story of women religious and these women religious orders are really often the story of women finding it difficult to exercise the proper authority over the orders that they founded.

HANSEN: How well known is her story in Australia?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, very well known. She's a national hero; there's stamps in her honor. This is a great day for Australia. She's the first Australian saint and she's much beloved there. And her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, affectionately called the Joeys, are still very much involved in teaching and working with the poor. I mean, this is one of these great women that you find in Catholic history. Just these redoubtable strong women that really helped to build up the church.

HANSEN: Given that sexual abuse by priests is a major issue in these times -one that the Pope has had to address - is there any reason to believe the timing of Mother Mary Mackillop's canonization isn't a coincidence?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, you know, it's not the thought that the church is actually doing this, you know, as a result of the sex abuse that was, you know, part of her story. But, you know, this really just came up recently and I think it's actually providential. I think that for Catholics to have someone as an example and to pray to, someone who had really undergone great suffering as a result of unearthing this case of abuse I think is very providential.

I was quite moved when I heard of the news and I thought that, you know, here's someone a sort of patron saint for sex abuse victims that people can pray to now, for her intercession, for her help in heaven.

HANSEN: And is this why you call her a saint for our time?

Mr. MARTIN: She's a saint for our time for a number of reasons. Not only the sex abuse. I mean, you don't want to reduce her life just to that incident but she's a strong woman who is working with the poor, you know, which is still an issue today. She was a woman of faith, you know, in a time when, you know, women were seen as kind of less than and she just led a very holy life. And she kept her wits about her, she kept her sense of humor and she kept her faith throughout all these very difficult trials. So, really a saint for any time.

HANSEN: Father James Martin is an editor with America magazine and the author of "My Life with the Saints." Thank you very much, Father Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: My pleasure.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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