Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide has been charged with covering up child abuse committed by a priest in the 1970s.
Archbishop Wilson, vice president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is the most senior cleric to be charged with an offence relating to the handling of an allegation of clerical sex abuse. He is due to appear in Newcastle local court on 30 April and if convicted, faces up to two years in jail.
The archbishop, 64, issued a statement today denying the allegation of concealing a serious offence regarding child sexual abuse, and said he was “disappointed” that police from New South Wales had decided to press charges.
The alleged abuse took place in New South Wales in the Hunter Region, in the diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, where Archbishop Wilson was a priest.
“The suggestion appears to be that I failed to bring to the attention of police a conversation I am alleged to have had in 1976, when I was a junior priest, that a now deceased priest had abused a child,” he said.
He said he would take leave “to consult with a wide range of people in response to the information I have received today”.
The president of the Australian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, issued a statement, pointing out that Archbishop Wilson “strongly maintains his innocence” and urging people from making any judgement until the charge has been dealt with by the court.
It is alleged that Wilson covered up knowledge of abuse by Fr Jim Fletcher in the 1970s, the Australian reported. Fr Fletcher was administrator at Maitland cathedral, where he met then Fr-Wilson.
In 2004 Fr Fletcher was jailed over the rape of a young boy between 1989 and 1991. He died of a stroke in 2006 while serving his sentence.
The NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the handling of abuse allegations in the Hunter Region, which was launched in 2012, has identified at least five known victims of Fletcher, “each of whom was as a child sexually abused by him over a number of months, and often years”.
It said Fr Fletcher had an “extensive history” of abusing children, in particular altar boys, dating back to the 1970s.
In 2011 the American bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph became the first Catholic bishop to be convicted for the handling of alleged abuse by a priest. Bishop Finn was sentenced to two years of probation for failure to report suspected child abuse.