Church sex-abuse victims see Mary MacKillop as their patron saint

 Here is the Mary MacKillop story so far:

  • Research by Broken Rites Australia has confirmed that, in 1870, the Sisters of St Joseph (co-founded by Mary MacKillop) exposed a sexually-abusive priest (Father Ambrose Patrick Keating) and the Sisters also exposed another priest (Father Charles Horan) who protected Keating.
  • Ever since then, the Catholic Church has covered up Keating’s sex-abuse (trivialising it as merely "misconduct") but in 2010 the media began publishing articles about Keating's sexual abuse as the Vatican declared Mary MacKillop as Australia’s first saint.
  • Broken Rites does not have a patron saint, but if we were required to have one, we would nominate Mary MacKillop as the patron saint of church sex-abuse victims. This might force the church authorities to acknowledge, more honestly, the church's covering-up of its sex abuse. But this goal night require a miracle.

Now here is the story in greater detail:

Broken Rites research

Broken Rites has examined documentary evidence, including a letter written on 11 June 1872 by Father Joseph Tappeiner, a Jesuit priest who worked with Mary MacKillop's nuns.

The sexually-abusive priest, Father Ambrose Patrick Keating, came to Australia from Ireland. He belonged to a Franciscan order (the Order of St Francis, or OSF). In 1870, Keating was ministering in a parish at Kapunda, north of Adelaide, in South Australia, where the Sisters of St Joseph were working. These nuns were helping under-privileged children.

In 1870, while Mary MacKillop was away in Queensland, her nuns at Kapunda were concerned that Father Keating was committing sexual abuse. Tappeiner's account puts it this way: "Fr. Keating OSF was accused of sexual offence in the Confessional, committed frequently and with many."

The nuns reported Keating to Father Julian Tenison Woods, who had co-founded their order with Mary MacKillop. The complaint reached the vicar-general (administrator) of the Adelaide diocese, Father John Smyth, who was in charge of the diocese during the absence of the bishop, Lawrence Sheil.

Tappeiner's letter says: "Having examined the matter, Fr. J. Smyth VG [Vicar-General] judged Keating guilty of the offence and ordered him to return to Europe [that is, Ireland]."

According to Tappeiner, the Vicar-General also made an adverse finding about Father Charles Horan (another Irishman) who was Father Keating's boss in Kapunda.

Tappeiner's letter says: "Fr. Horan was then the companion and Superior of Fr. Keating and they were of the same Order of St. Francis; he himself was judged by the Vicar General to have been not altogether free from fault, even if only by turning a blind eye."

That is, Father Horan had harboured and protected the abusive Keating.

The Josephites' exposure of Keating angered Father Charles Horan, who swore revenge on the Josephites. Father Horan was by now working for Adelaide's Bishop Shiel and persuaded him to break up the Josephites by changing their structure.

When MacKillop (then aged 29) refused to comply, the bishop dismissed her as the leader of the Josephites for her "insubordination" but he re-instated her five months later.

Father Tappeiner's letter has been filed by Brian Condon, a historian who is associated with the University of South Australia. The letter is in Condon's collection of Letters and Documents in 19th Century Australian Catholic History.

Church kept the abusive priest

After Keating returned to Ireland, the church authorities allowed him to remain in the priesthood, thereby putting additional potential victims in danger. That is, the church hierarchy punished Mary MacKillop and the Josephites but it harboured the sexually-abusive Father Keating and his protector, Father Horan.

It is therefore appropriate that the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in 2010 has helped to bring public attention to the issue of church sex-abuse.

The cover-up continues

In the 20th and 21st century, the church hierarchy has gone quiet about how Mary MacKillop's nuns exposed church sex-abuse in 1870. A Jesuit priest, Paul Gardiner, spent 25 years until 2010 lobbying to have Mary MacKillop canonised as a saint, and he has written a biography of MacKillop (Mary MacKillop: an Extraordinary Australian). This book, however, discreetly avoids mentioning that the 1870 scandal was about sexual abuse. Gardiner merely says (on page 85) that the nuns accused Father Keating of "scandalous conduct".

Gardiner's book was published in 1993 — a year after the founding of Broken Rites Australia. At that time, the Catholic Church was successfully covering up its sexual abuse and was protecting its public image from the taint of "scandal".

Tappeiner's 1872 account, on the other hand, was more explicit — he mentioned Father Keating's "sexual offence ... committed frequently and with many".)

Father Paul Gardiner's book confirmed that, because of the Josephites' exposure of the Keating "scandal", Keating's friend Horan got revenge by lobbying to break up the Josephite order. The book also mentions Father Horan's revenge against MacKillop (on pages 98 and 119).

In October 2010, when the Catholic Church was about to officially "canonise" Mary MacKillop as a saint, the media revealed that the 1870 scandal involved sex-abuse.

The 2010 articles about sex-abuse (rather than "scandal") evidently embarrassed the church authorities. In early October 2010, the Catholic Communications Office in the Sydney Archdiocese published a media statement (on the archdiocesan website) about the Josephites and sexual abuse. The media release did not deny that Father Keating’s sexual abuse occurred and it did not deny that the Josephites complained to the Adelaide bishop about the abuse. However, the media release sought to minimise the significance of the church sexual abuse in the MacKillop story. The media release left the impression that the Sydney archdiocese regards church sexual abuse as not a big issue.

The church cover-up continued when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed the director of the Vatican press office (Father Federico Lombardi) on the "Lateline" television program on 15 October 2010. The interview was recorded in English. But when reporter Emma Alberici asked Lombardi about church sexual abuse, Lombardi became irritated and snapped in Italian: "Excuse me, that’s enough on this topic. I want to talk about other things, not only sexual abuse."

Emma Alberici said politely (in Italian): "But I have just two more questions."

Father Lombardi snapped (in Italian): "That’s enough. For eight months, you’ve all asked nothing but questions about this. Let’s pass over that now and talk about other things."

Father Lombardi perhaps expected that this clash (in Italian) would be edited out of the English-language tape. But, for the benefit of viewers, the "Lateline" producers aired the clash, placing the English translation of Father Lombardi's words on the screen.

More whistle-blowers needed

The senior Australian bishops who attended Mary MacKillop's canonisation ceremony in Rome on 17 October 2010 included Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide (the diocese where the 1870 Father Keating scandal occurred). As well as being chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Wilson has been a long-time member of the Australian bishops' national committee for professional standards — the body that oversees the management of the church's sexual-abuse crisis.

But, unlike the Josephites who exposed Father Keating in 1870, Archbishop Philip Wilson is no whistle-blower. Wilson has yet to explain how much he knew about abusive priests while he was working as an assistant in the administration of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese earlier in his career, in the 1980s and 1990s. See more about Archbishop Wilson here here.

More than a century after Mary MacKillop and her Josephites exposed the Father Keating "scandal", the Catholic Church still has lessons to learn.