A week ago, newspapers and the internet was buzzing with the story that Bl. Mary MacKillop, who is being canonized in Rome this Sunday, was a "whistle -blower", a woman who had been excommunicated because she exposed the sexual abuse of a priest.
The story got considerable play over at dotcommonweal, the America blog, was featured as a news story on New Advent, Andrew Sullivan's blog, Get Religion, Religion News, etc. Mary was going to be the unofficial patron saint of whistle-blowers.
The problem is that the whistle-blower scenario has turned out to be completely false. And that news hasn't made it around the internet yet.
At the time the story came out, I did some research because I happened to own the definite biography of MacKillop, written by the postulater of her cause, Fr. Paul Gardiner. (We have used Mary for years as an example of the charism of teaching in our Called & Gifted workshops.) As I wrote in the discussion over at Dotcommonweal,
"The problem with the whistle-blower scenario is that Mary wasn’t anywhere near Adelaide in April, 1870 when her sisters there heard rumors about Fr. Keating, a local Franciscan. She was in Brisbane, 1,000 miles away, and didn’t return until nearly a year later. (A journey of 1000 miles in 1870 Australia took weeks.)
"The sisters in Adelaide heard stories of abuse and told Fr. Woods, their founder. Fr. Woods told the Vicar General of the diocese and the Vicar General sent Keating away. One of Keating’s confreres, Fr. Horan, set out to take his revenge on Fr. Woods by destroying the Josephite Sisters which he had founded. It was Horan who drafted a long list of accusations against the Sisters, calling them incompetent and disobedient, and it was Mary MacKillop who was trying to keep her footing and protect her sisters in the middle of what was essentially a dispute among priests. And all of this occurred while the bishop, who was the only one who could have defused the situation, was away in Europe for over a year at the First Vatican Council!
"It would be most odd for Gardiner not to mention Mary’s role in this – if she was involved – since the whole point of the chapter was to understand the complex patterns of events that led to her excommunication and dissolution of the Josephites in the Diocese of Adelaide (Some of the communities outside Adelaide survived.) Of course, an error is always a possibility but his book is not the work of a careless or incompetent man."
". . . the imagined “whistle-blower” scenario of Mary personally walking into the bishop’s office to report an abusive priest never happened. The Josephite community in Adelaide were whistle-blowers but the ultimate whistle-blower was Fr. Woods and he was the one that Horan was attempting to punish for it.
But in the current climate with the first Australian canonization happening in three weeks, it was much easier – and more profitable – to fudge the facts. So the saintly, unjustly treated woman becomes the whistle-blower while the mentally ill male co-founder, who actually did the reporting is ignored."
History is sometimes stranger than fiction! The primary whistle-blower turned out to be a wildly eccentric, mentally ill male cleric, Fr. Woods, not our new woman saint. Since Fr. Woods was regarded as "the founder" of the Josephite sisters, Fr. Horan sought to take vengeance by destroying the women's community that he had founded.
It turns out that the carelessness and incompetence lay elsewhere. Now both Fr. Gardiner and the executive producer of the Australian Broadcasting Company's Compass show (the source of the original story) have vehemently denied ever asserting that Mary was a whistle-blower.
As Fr. Gardiner put it:
"Early in 1870, the scandal occurred and the Sisters of Saint Joseph reported it to Father Tenison Woods, but Mary was in Queensland and no one was worried about her," Father Gardiner told The Australian.
Father Gardiner, considered the nation's foremost authority on the history of MacKillop, said his words had been twisted to suit the "ill will" of media outlets.
"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," Father 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."
So as we come to this weekend of celebration and joy, can all bloggers of good will make a concerted effort to get out the true story? Let's see if we can make the true story fly about the internet as quickly as the false one did.
By the way, here's the link for the Compass docu-drama that started all the fuss, which was broadcast last Sunday. It is 53 minutes long and well done. You'll notice that it was the community of Josephite sisters in Adelaide who reported the abuse to Fr. Woods. Fr. Gardiner reports that Fr. Woods was the one who reported it to the Vicar General (because the Bishop was in Europe attending the First Vatican Council.)