The former Archbishop of Adelaide has won his appeal against his conviction for failing to report child sex abuse of altar boys by a priest in the 1970s.
Bishop Philip Wilson, aged 68, had insisted during his original trial in New South Wales that he had no recall of the allegations being raised with him in 1976, although two men told the court they had reported the abuse to Wilson.
Judge Roy Ellis in Newcastle District Court, north of Sydney, overturned the prelate’s conviction, saying the Crown had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
He ordered the Archbishop, who has served four months of a minimum six months’ home detention, to be released.
Wilson had been sentenced to a year in jail, to be served as a minimum six months home detention at his sister’s home on the Central Coast.
Philip Marshall, administrator delegate of the Adelaide Archdiocese, said: "We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome. 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."
Wilson resigned as Archbishop of Adelaide in July having previously been unwilling to step down from his position.
Among those who called for him to stand down was the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who publicly calling for the Pope to remove the archbishop while also communicating that view to the Vatican.
Judge Ellis also dismissed an appeal by the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions against the leniency of Magistrate Robert Stone’s decision in Newcastle Local Court that Wilson should serve 12 months of home detention.
The Crown has indicated it will appeal.
After the verdict had been delivered, one member of the public present in court shouted: ““Bull…. – that’s a disgrace.”
Archbishop Wilson, a former President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, was not present but watched from his sister’s home.
The Administrator Delegate of the Adelaide Archdiocese, Fr Philip Marshall, said of the decision: “We note the outcome of the judgement handed down today by Judge Roy Ellis in the Newcastle District Court and welcome the conclusion of a process that has been long and painful for all concerned.
“We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome.
“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.”
Judge Ellis said Archbishop Wilson was honest and consistent and that he had not attempted to blacken the name of Peter Creigh.
Mr Creigh had given evidence that in 1976 he had told then Fr Wilson that he had been sexually abused by a fellow priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, Fr Jim Fletcher. But that in 2004, Wilson – by then Archbishop of Adelaide – had failed to report it to police when Fletcher was charged with other child sex offences. Fletcher died in 2006.
Judge Ellis said Mr Creigh was “an honest witness doing his best to recall events in 1976”, but he was not satisfied of the accuracy of some of Mr Creigh’s recollections of an alleged conversation with Archbishop Wilson about being sexually abused by Fletcher.
He said Mr Creigh made no complaint to anyone until he told his family in 2009 and “made no notes of the conversation with Philip Wilson either at the time or shortly after the alleged conversation, nor at any time during the ensuing 39 years”.
“In my view acceptance of Mr Peter Creigh as an honest witness does not automatically mean I would be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he complained to Philip Wilson in 1976 that James Fletcher had indecently assaulted him.” he said.
Judge Ellis said Archbishop Wilson could not be convicted simply because the Catholic Church “has a lot to answer for” in terms of its response to children alleging sexual abuse by clergy.
“Philip Wilson when he appears before this court is simply an individual who has the same legal rights as every other person in our community,” Judge Ellis said.
“It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.”
Judge Ellis said expressed concerns about media interest in high-profile cases.
"This is not a criticism of media, but intended or not, the mere presence of large amounts of media from all around Australia and the world carries with it a certain amount of pressure on the court," he said.
But he acknowledged the role of the media in making public the “morally reprehensible” actions of churches and other institutions.
Outside court, Mr Creigh said he was "not up to talking".
Mrs Patricia Feenan, whose son Daniel was abused by Fr Fletcher, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "It's very disappointing, very upsetting. Why am I not surprised?"
Mr Peter Gogarty, a prominent advocate for survivors who was abused by Fletcher, said he was extremely disappointed by the decision and by Archbishop Wilson not attending court.
He said he was disappointed by the outcome personally and for those people who “have stood up to the might and the money of the Catholic Church".
"If the Catholic Church thinks that people like me and lots of other survivors of child abuse are going to be set back by this, then we've got news for them, because I'm not going anywhere.”
Archbishop Wilson, who last year announced that he had been diagnosed as in the early stages of dementia, was the most senior Catholic clergyman in the world to be charged with concealing child sexual abuse in March 2015 and the most senior to be convicted when found guilty in May this year.
“I welcome Philip Wilson’s resignation as Archbishop of Adelaide today which belatedly recognises the many calls, including my own, for him to resign,” the Prime Minister said in a statement at the time. “There is no more important responsibility for community and church leaders than the protection of children.”