Philip Wilson, Archbishop of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, has been convicted of concealing child sexual abuse. He is the highest-ranking Catholic official in the world to be convicted of concealing child sexual abuse among the Church's clergy, according to NPR. Wilson, now 67-years-old, could face up to 2 years in prison. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for next month.
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Magistrate Judge Robert Stone announced the verdict against Wilson on Tuesday, May 22, 2016, ending a bench trial that did not feature a jury.
At trial, Magistrate Stone heard two sides of a very troubling story. In 2004, Catholic priest James Fletcher was arrested on charges of molestation. He was soon found guilty on nine counts of child sexual abuse, sentenced to around 8 years in prison and died while incarcerated in 2006.
But Australian prosecutors say that, while serving as an assistant priest in New South Wales, Archbishop Wilson learned of Fletcher's abusive misconduct during the 1970s. In 1976, two altar boys, one of whom, Peter Creigh, provided his testimony at the trial, came forward and reported to Wilson that they were being abused by Fletcher. But Wilson, prosecutors claimed, did not take this information to the police.
Nor did he provide any details of the boys' disclosure to law enforcement after Fletcher was arrested in 2004. The prosecutors charged him for concealing a serious crime committed by another person, but a series of darker allegations framed Wilson's day in court.
During the trial, Creigh, whose name has been released to the media, said he approached Wilson in 1971, at the age of 10, hopeful that the assistant priest would protect him from the repeated abuse he had suffered at Fletcher's hands. Instead, Wilson looked at him with "horror," the man said, then did nothing. No call to the police. No report to higher Church authorities. Just silence.
A similar reaction met the other former altar boy, who says he disclosed Fletcher's abuse during a confessional taken by Wilson in 1976. Wilson, the witness says, dismissed his disclosure, calling Fletcher "a good bloke" and telling the boy to say 10 Hail Marys in contrition.
Wilson, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, says he doesn't remember any of these events. And, while he denies concealing evidence of child sexual abuse, it's notable that Wilson's defense team didn't attempt to dispute the truthfulness of his accusers. Instead, the attorneys tried to undermine the testimony's credibility, asking how a person could accurately remember events that took place as long as 37 years ago.
Magistrate Stone, however, said that he found Creigh a truthful and reliable witness, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports, noting that the man "had no motive or interest to deceive or make up the conversation."
Another of the defense's arguments may strike you as even stranger. Wilson's team argued that, in the 1970s, child sexual abuse wasn't considered a serious crime - thus, Wilson had no obligation to report the claimed offenses to law enforcement officials.
This line of reasoning didn't sit well with Magistrate Stone, either. In his opinion, the Justice found that, in 1976, Wilson knew that "what he was hearing was a credible allegation and the accused wanted to protect the church and its reputation."
It's a terrible story that we've heard too many times, but it's also true that the Catholic Church is being forced to face up to its history of abuse and concealment like never before.
Last week, on May 18, 2018, every Roman Catholic bishop in Chile offered to resign after being accused by Pope Francis of failing to investigate abuse reports, hiding abusive priests from justice by moving them from diocese to diocese and looking the other way as evidence was destroyed. In April, the Pope admitted to "grave errors" in pursuing the case, apologizing personally to abuse victims in Rome.