Former church sexual abuse victim PETER GOGARTY says the move to quash Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction for concealing sexual abuse is a massive step backwards. Here he takes us inside the court to explain what victim Peter Creigh had to go through.
Last week Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis threw out the conviction of Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson for concealing the sexual abuse of Peter Creigh by Catholic priest James Patrick Fletcher.
In the process the court shattered Peter Creigh, his family and all of the friends and other survivors who were there to support him. Philip Wilson was nowhere to be seen – having convinced the judge that “issues” with the media might make him uncomfortable.
The decision itself was not a particular surprise, but the things said, the way the process worked and the fact that two educated and experienced members of the judiciary came to such staggeringly different views about the same information left everyone reeling.
Wilson was charged in 2015 for knowing or believing that Fletcher had committed an indecent assault against Peter Creigh and that he had no reasonable excuse for not going to the Police with that information. Wilson’s defence was that he had no memory of ever being told of the accusations.
In May 2018, Newcastle Local Court Magistrate Robert Stone found Wilson guilty of the offence - saying that prosecution witnesses (including Peter Creigh) had been truthful and reliable.
He described Wilson’s evidence as contrived and evasive, and said Wilson knew the allegations were credible, that his inaction was motivated by his desire to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church.
Stone also referred to expert evidence given at the trial – particularly that the more emotionally involved we are, and the more momentous or stressful an event is, the more likely we are to remember it. He also accepted that less critical details such as exact words, or what day of the week something happened, or the colour clothes you were wearing are the memories most likely to be lost.
Wilson appealed his conviction and this was considered by Judge Roy Ellis (Ellis) in Newcastle District Court. During the hearing, and while reading his decision, Ellis made a number of statements which were deeply upsetting - comments about how our memory works, whose evidence was accurate and reliable, and how a person comes to believe something.
Where Stone found Wilson’s evidence to be evasive, Ellis considered him truthful and logical - saying “…the very honest features of his evidence … provide a strong platform for accepting him as an honest witness.”
Where Stone found Peter Creigh to be “truthful and reliable” Ellis said that while he might be trying to be truthful, his evidence may not have been accurate and “… it is not inconceivable that in looking back Mr Peter Creigh convinced himself that he had complained rather than asking himself why he didn’t complain …”
Unlike Stone, Ellis did not entertain the possibility that Wilson was deceitful in order to protect his own interests and those of the Catholic Church. He did entertain Wilson’s argument that the terrible acts forced upon Peter Creigh by Fletcher may not have actually been a sexual assault.
He listed inconsistencies in the evidence of Peter Creigh – all of which related to peripheral aspects of memory rather than the core memory – things like did the conversation with Wilson happen just before Easter or just after Easter, did Peter Creigh call Wilson “Philip” or “Father”, did the conversation last 15 minutes or 20 to 30 minutes, did Fletcher abuse him for 6 months or 9 months?
Ellis was also critical that Peter Creigh did not make notes of the conversation with Wilson – either at the time, shortly after or at any time since.
While doubting the evidence of all of the prosecution witnesses, the court had only good things to say about Wilson’s evidence.
Ellis said “…in my view, the idea of keeping an open mind on hearing an allegation of sexual abuse is the appropriate response from any intelligent reasonable and thoughtful individual.”
The Judge compared his own manner of thinking with that claimed by Wilson – finding it “not that strange”… and “… it doesn’t seem so foreign to me maybe because that’s exactly what I would do”.
Does it matter for one second whether Fletcher sexually abused him for one month, six months or six years? Is the abuse any less real or any less traumatic?
Does it matter whether Fletcher sexually abused him for one month, six months or six years? Is the abuse any less real?Peter Gogarty
Wilson on the other hand had much to gain from his memory problems, his health problems, his constant delaying tactics. He has led a life of power and privilege and he did not - does not - want to let that go.
Regardless of whether the outcome is right or wrong, fair or unfair, it has at the potential to set back the cause of child sex abuse survivors by 20 years. What 11 year old child should be expected to take note about terrible trauma – let alone keep them?
Think about the most traumatic thing that has happened to you. How would you feel if someone said you had just imagined it? That you aren’t reliable because you can’t remember whether it happened on Saturday or Sunday, or if your shirt was green or blue?
Think about someone who says they are impartial but then compares your torment to a forgotten anniversary or a joke. Ask yourself why a judge would say that he would never put his own children through a process like this?
It is as if all of the learnings from the Royal Commission have come to naught. A year after the Royal Commission finished, six years after it started revealing the scandalous cover-up of child sexual abuse, it is the victim who must yet again justify him or her self – not the offender.
We are back to business as usual.