Former archbishop cleared in sexual abuse case
Australian cleric had been convicted of covering up priest’s acts
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA — An Australian appeals court overturned a conviction Thursday against the most senior Roman Catholic cleric to be found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse.
New South Wales state District Court Judge Roy Ellis upheld former Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s appeal of his May conviction in a lower court for concealing the sexual abuse of two altar boys by a pedophile priest in the 1970s.
Ellis found that there was reasonable doubt that Wilson, 68, had committed the crime, which is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Wilson has served almost four months of a year-long sentence of home detention at his sister’s house outside Newcastle. He was to become eligible for parole after serving six months.
The judge also dismissed a prosecution appeal against the leniency of the sentence.
Wilson was allowed to watch the decision via a video link from a remote location so he could avoid media cameras at the Newcastle court.
Wilson has always maintained his innocence. After his conviction, he initially refused calls for his resignation until he had exhausted his appeal options. However, he quit in July after thenPrime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Vatican to act.
Philip Marshall, administrator delegate of the Adelaide Archdiocese, Wilson’s replacement, said the church noted the judgment and welcomed the conclusion of a process that had been long and painful for all concerned.
“We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome,” Marshall said in a statement.
“The survivors of child sexual abuse and their families are in our thoughts and prayers, and the archdiocese remains committed to providing the safest possible environments for children and vulnerable people in our care,” he added.
The prosecution said Wilson was told by two altar boys in 1976 that they had been abused by pedophile priest James Fletcher but did nothing about it. It was alleged that he subsequently failed to go to the police after Fletcher was arrested in 2004 for abusing another boy.
One of the two victims, Peter Creigh, was in tears after the judge’s decision and too upset to comment outside court. Creigh has previously agreed to be identified in the media as a victim of child sexual abuse.
In May, Newcastle Magistrate Robert Stone rejected the testimony of Wilson, who is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease; Wilson said he could not remember the altar boys telling him of the abuse.
Fletcher was convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing another boy and died of a stroke in prison in 2006.