The Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, has been found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse by a fellow priest.
He was convicted of concealing abuse by Fr James Fletcher in the 1970s, when the Archbishop was a young priest in his home Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in New South Wales.
Magistrate Robert Stone announced his verdict in a 59-page judgement delivered to a packed courtroom at Newcastle Local Court, north of Sydney, today (22 May).
Archbishop Wilson, the most senior Catholic cleric to date to be convicted on a charge of concealing child abuse, faces up to two years in jail when sentenced on 19 June. Mr Stone has the option of suspending the sentence, but prosecutors are seeking a custodial sentence.
He remains on bail on condition that he attends his sentencing hearing.
It is not yet clear whether the 67-year-old prelate, who has led the Church in the South Australian capital since 2001, will remain in office.
On 28 November last year, the day his trial was to begin, Archbishop Wilson revealed that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was examined in Adelaide and deemed fit to stand trial, with the court hearing beginning before Christmas and resuming last month before Mr Stone reserved his decision on 13 April.
“I am obviously disappointed at the decision published today,” Archbishop Wilson said after the verdict. “I will now have to consider the reasons and consult closely with my lawyers to determine the next steps.
"I do not propose to make any further comment at this stage.”
The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Brisbane’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge, also issued a statement after the verdict.
“Archbishop Philip Wilson has today been found guilty of failing to inform police about allegations of child sexual abuse,” he said. “Archbishop Wilson maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process. It is not yet clear if he will appeal the verdict.
“The Catholic Church, like other institutions, has learned a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse and has implemented stronger programs, policies and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults. The safety of children and vulnerable adults is paramount for the Church and its ministries.”
Mr Stone found that Peter Creigh, an altar boy who was abused by Fletcher as a child, was a truthful and reliable witness. Mr Creigh, who waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, told the hearing that in 1976 he told Archbishop Wilson, then a junior priest at St Joseph’s Church in East Maitland, that Fr Fletcher had subjected him to acts of punishment and sexual abuse about five years earlier. There was no dispute during the hearing that Fletcher had sexually abused Mr Creigh, then aged 10.
The Magistrate dismissed Archbishop Wilson’s claim that he could not remember the 1976 conversation, in which Mr Creigh, who would have been aged 15 at that time, described his abuse by Fletcher. Mr Stone said Mr Creigh "had no motive or interest to deceive or make up the conversation".
He said Archbishop Wilson, who knew the Creigh family, knew what he was hearing was credible and the accused had “wanted to protect the Church and its reputation".
But Mr Stone accepted that Archbishop Wilson had no role in the assaults and that Fletcher, who died in prison in 2006, had never made admissions to him.
The Archbishop’s legal team tried four times unsuccessfully to have the case against him thrown out.
Former NSW Police detective chief inspector Peter Fox, who had previously alleged that the Church covered up Fletcher's offending, said he was "delighted" by the court's decision because now someone within the church was being held to account.
"It's a major turning point. It's been very difficult for so many of these witnesses; I can't tell you how difficult it's been," Mr Fox told Australian Associated Press.
"I am confident this will make waves in the Vatican."
Abuse survivor Mr Peter Gogarty said outside court that the verdict was "one of the most significant days in criminal law in Australian history".
"I think this will now open the doors for other jurisdictions to start looking at trying to prosecute people who deliberately looked after their institution and, literally, threw children to the wolves," Mr Gogarty said.
"On behalf of all of the victims — who have been abused in this country and elsewhere — I just want to say what an enormous relief it is that the people who let this happen are finally being brought to account.
"I am very pleased that the prosecution is going to push for a custodial sentence.
"We're talking about children being sexually abused and the Archbishop knew — that to me demands a custodial sentence."
Archbishop Wilson was ordained a priest in 1975. After doctoral studies in the US and occupying senior positions in Maitland-Newcastle diocese, he was appointed by Pope St John Paul II as Bishop of Wollongong, south of Sydney, in 1996. Five years later, he became the eighth Archbishop of Adelaide, succeeding Archbishop Leonard Faulkner – at whose funeral he presided only eight days ago.
In 2006, Archbishop Wilson was elected President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, a post he held until 2012.