As I have ungenerously noted elsewhere, Blessed John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries. During his time on the Chair, he venerated, beatified, and canonized a lot of folks, especially from areas that had been overlooked by his predecessors. If my tone isn't coming through clearly, let me be unequivocal: this was a very good thing, and long overdue. The first and only saint from Australia, Mary MacKillop, was beatified by JP II and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Good for them.
The daughter of poor Scottish immigrants, Mary worked as a governess and teacher before dedicating her life to God. She co-founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, an order for the education of poor rural Australian children, and worked to establish schools across the continent. They expanded to orphanages and homes for the elderly.
Weak leadership in the diocesan office left bitter factionalism in the parishes. One thing that united most of the local priests was their dislike of Sister Mary. They spread rumors of financial mismanagement and impropriety. Further, they exploited her prescription for alcohol to relieve dysmenorrhea as evidence that she had a drinking problem. In 1870, Mary and the other sisters learned of sexual abuse of children by a priest named Father Keating (he was ultimately sent to Ireland with the public story that he had a drinking problem). A colleague of Keating became vicar general and persuaded the bishop to bring the Sisters of Saint Joseph to heel. Sister Mary refused to submit and was excommunicated for insubordination. Many of the schools that the sisters opened were closed; others were kept open, but under the direct control of the diocese.
Mary herself lived for a while with a Jewish family. She was also sheltered by Jesuits, who distinguished themselves time and again for doing the right thing in defiance of the church hierarchy. AMDG! The excommunication was lifted by Bishop Shiel as he was dying, and communicated to her by Father Hughes in the Morphett Vale Church in 1872. It must have been nice to hear that the Bishop had seen the light and reversed his position, but galling nonetheless to think that so much work to help children had been dismantled while the pedophile made his escape to Ireland, where he was likely to repeat his crimes.
Sister Mary went to Rome to get approval for the Order, which was eventually granted. She returned to Australia and began to lead the sisters in rebuilding their schools, but faced opposition from the local clergy and the bishop's office for years. By the time of her death in 1909, however, she was recognized for the saint she was.
It is odd how the events described can resonate now. The cover-up of sexual abuse is obvious, but so too is the friction between the social work of the Sisters and the resentment of the clergy. Here's hoping that Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Sartain can take a warning before they tread on the work of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.