Pope Francis has appointed an interim leader of the Archdiocese of Adelaide after its archbishop, Philip Wilson, was found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse.
Bishop Gregory O’Kelly was on Sunday named apostolic administrator of the church in Adelaide, a role which hands him the executive functions of an archbishop but without the title.
The new administrator, who is a Jesuit and Bishop of neighbouring Port Pirie diocese, takes over an archdiocese plunged into crisis by the decision of a court in New South Wales to convict Archbishop Wilson of concealing abuse committed by a priest in the 1970s.
The 67-year-old prelate is the highest ranking figure in the Church to be convicted of such an offence and last month announced he would step aside from his duties.
While the archdiocese said a vicar-general would take over Archbishop Wilson’s responsibilities, Francis’ move overrides that decision and gives the archdiocese episcopal leadership from a figure outside the diocese.
Apostolic administrators are normally appointed when a bishop cannot fulfil his duties or has died. They govern in the name of the Pope until a new bishop is appointed. While administration have the same powers as a bishop their powers are restricted when it comes to selling property, restructuring a diocese and appointing new priests to parishes.
As result, Archbishop Wilson technically remains the Archbishop of Adelaide. The archbishop, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, maintains his innocence despite his conviction and says he cannot remember being told about allegations of abuse committed by priest James - “Jim” - Fletcher.
The archbishop’s sentencing his due to take place on 19 June, and he could face up to two years in prison.
In a statement Bishop O’Kelly, 76, said he had been appointed to “address some of the needs occurring in the Archdiocese out of the present circumstances where Archbishop Wilson has stepped down from episcopal duties.”
He added: “The Pope’s intention is to provide stability for the people of the archdiocese during these challenging times.”
Archbishop Wilson’s conviction came soon after it was announced that Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior churchman, would stand trial for historic sex offences. The cardinal denies the charges against him.
The credibility of the Catholic Church in Australia has been severely damaged due to the sheer scale of the abusing that took place inside the Church along with the subsequent mishandling of cases.
A Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found there were 4,444 claimants against the Church between 1950-2015 while there 1,800 suspected abusers from 1980-2015 - most of them priests and religious brothers.
Last year it emerged the Church had paid out $276 million (£157 million) to survivors and has recently joined a government redress scheme for victims. The the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said he expects the Church to be paying out to survivors for "many years to come".