ADELAIDE Archbishop Philip Wilson has been put on notice that he could expect a jail term after he was found guilty on Tuesday of concealing historical child abuse allegations against another priest.
In a landmark decision that could have wide-reaching implications for other high-ranking clergy members, Magistrate Robert Stone found Archbishop Wilson had been told by a 15-year-old boy in 1976 that he had been indecently assaulted by notorious Hunter paedophile priest Father James Fletcher, but chose not to go to the authorities despite believing the allegations were true.
Archbishop Wilson, now the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be found guilty of failing to report child sexual abuse to police, faces the maximum of two years in jail when he is sentenced on June 19.
“It is not yet clear if he will appeal the verdict,” Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in a statement.
It was a circumstantial case and the prosecution had to overcome a number of significant hurdles in their bid to prove Archbishop Wilson concealed the sexual abuse allegations against Father Fletcher.
Not only did Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison have to prove that Mr Creigh told Archbishop Wilson about the sexual abuse in 1976, but that Archbishop Wilson remembered it and had a belief that the allegations were true between 2004 and 2006, after Fletcher had been charged with child sex offences and before his death in jail.
They also had to prove that Archbishop Wilson knew or believed he had information which might be of assistance in securing the prosecution of Fletcher for the sexual abuse offences against Mr Creigh.
But ultimately, Mr Stone found the prosecution were able to clear all those hurdles.
Each piece of circumstantial evidence was a “strand in a cable”, Mr Stone said, twisted and twined together to make an unbreakable case against Archbishop Wilson.
After Mr Stone delivered his lengthy judgement, Mr Harrison put the Archbishop and his high-powered legal team on notice that he would be pushing for a jail term when Wilson is sentenced next month.
“For the purposes of sentencing, denunciation and general deterrence are paramount and for those reasons the prosecution will be submitting a custodial sentence is an appropriate one,” Mr Harrison said.
BELIEF VITAL TO MAGISTRATE’S DECISION
IN the end, Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s landmark hearing came down to a state of mind – belief.
Did Archbishop Wilson, 67, believe a young Peter Creigh in 1976 when he told him he had been sexually abused by Hunter priest James Fletcher?
Did he believe him 28 years later, under a weight of evidence from other accusers and after Father Fletcher had been charged with child sex offences against another boy?
And, between 2004 and 2006, did Archbishop Wilson believe that the information he had could be used by police to secure the prosecution of Fletcher?
And did Magistrate Robert Stone believe Archbishop Wilson, the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with failing to report child sexual abuse to police, or his accusers, Hunter parishioners who went to Wilson for guidance or support and were fobbed off or lied to.
“The reliability of these people cannot be questioned or attacked,” Mr Stone said of Mr Creigh and the other prosecution witnesses.
“Separately, in each allegation you might only have a suspicion.
“Taken together the suspicion becomes more than that.
“They were people who, as a whole, were believable.
Mr Stone rejected Archbishop Wilson’s evidence that he would not believe an allegation was true until it had been tested and proven in court.
“He is hiding behind a “formal view” of what “belief” means in a criminal context.
“I do not accept that reasoning and consider it to be flawed.”
Ultimately, Mr Stone said it was the type of people who made the allegations, who he described as “solid, church-going people”, that convinced him of Wilson’s guilt.
“It is the number of people who have complained and the weight and quality of these people that allows me to be convinced that each of the elements is proven.”