03 July 2018, The Tablet

Archbishop Wilson sentenced to 12 months’ detention on charge of concealing child sexual abuse

Magistrate's decision to impose a 12-month sentence 'ground-breaking in itself'

Archbishop Wilson sentenced to 12 months’ detention on charge of concealing child sexual abuse

Archbishop Wilson
Photo: PA images

Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson has been sentenced to 12 months’ detention on a charge of concealing child sexual abuse by convicted paedophile priest, the late James Fletcher.

The 67-year-old Archbishop, who stood aside after he was found guilty in May, will be eligible for parole in six months.

Magistrate Robert Stone told Newcastle Local Court in New South Wales that Archbishop Wilson’s suitability to serve the sentence at his sister’s home in NSW should be assessed and adjourned the matter until 14 August. The Archbishop remains on bail until then.

There has been no indication from Archbishop Wilson or his legal team about any appeal.

Archbishop Wilson was charged in 2015 with concealing a serious indictable offence under the NSW Crimes Act for not divulging information the Archbishop had received as a young priest in his home diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in the 1970s that may have helped secure the conviction of Fletcher between 2004 and 2006. Fletcher was jailed in 2004 and died in prison in 2006.

The court accepted that former altar boy Peter Creigh, who waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, had told then Fr Wilson in 1976 about being abused by Fletcher about five years earlier when Mr Creigh was aged 10. It rejected Archbishop Wilson’s evidence that he did not remember the conversation between 2004 and 2006.

A second victim, who cannot be named, said he was about 11 in 1976 when he went into a confessional box to tell Fr Wilson how Fletcher had abused him.

Declaring that only a custodial sentence could be imposed given the seriousness of the offence, Mr Stone said the only rational explanation for Archbishop Wilson concealing the child sexual abuse allegations was that he was protecting the Catholic Church.

He said the Archbishop had shown no remorse or contrition, although he accepted that he was unlikely to reoffend.

Abuse survivors gave a mixed response to the sentence.

Mr Peter Gogarty said Archbishop Wilson had probably been let off “a little bit too lightly", but said the sentence was still significant.

"One way or the other, the Archbishop has been convicted of concealing the abuse of children," Mr Gogarty said.

Another of Fletcher's victims, Daniel Feenan, was born in 1976 and said if something had been done that year, his life would have been very different.

He said the magistrate's decision to impose a 12-month sentence was “ground-breaking in itself".

The Apostolic Administrator of the Adelaide archdiocese, Bishop Greg O’Kelly, said the arrangements made by Pope Francis for his role remained in place.

A statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the bishops acknowledged that the effects of sexual abuse could last a lifetime, “but we hope that today’s custodial sentence brings some sense of peace and healing to those abused by deceased priest James Fletcher”.

“It takes great courage for survivors to come forward to tell their stories. Survivors have been vital in helping us learn the lesson of our shameful history of abuse and concealment, which was laid bare in the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse and state inquiries, including the Cunneen Inquiry (into abuse in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle),” the bishops said.

“The Church has made substantial changes to ensure that abuse and cover-up are not part of Catholic life and that children are safe in our communities.

“We will continue to work with all those in the Church and beyond who are seeking to put in place strong and consistent standards of safeguarding throughout Australia, including how we respond to allegations of sexual abuse.”

Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle said Archbishop Wilson grew up in the Catholic community of Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and was a priest of the diocese from his ordination in 1975 until his appointment as Bishop of Wollongong in 1996.

“It is a source of great grief and shock to the Catholic community here that he has been found guilty of concealing the appalling crimes of another priest, the convicted paedophile James Fletcher, now deceased,” Bishop Wright said.

“Our grief is first of all for the two teenage boys who, the court found, reported abuse by Fletcher to the then 26-year-old Fr Wilson in 1976 and a year or two later.

“Their trust was betrayed when no effective action was taken and they were deprived of the care they should have received at the time.

“Fletcher went on to abuse other boys, and we grieve for the harm done to them as we realise the dreadful truth that this could have been prevented by timely action against Fletcher.

“It is also the finding of the court that Wilson in 2004 failed to inform the police investigating Fletcher of the reports he had received in the 1970s even though, in the finding of the court, he would surely have remembered them. This is a highly disturbing reflection on the Archbishop.

“These things are also a deep shock to those who, like me, have known Phillip Wilson for many years or who, having followed the proceedings of The Royal Commission, are aware of his vigorous actions against child abusers as a bishop.

“In Wollongong he refused to accept the finding of a Roman tribunal that a suspected priest should be returned to duty, and his stance was later vindicated. In Adelaide he offered material assistance to the SA Police to extradite a lay church employee back from the United States.

“It is a deep shock and disappointment that this man has been found guilty of covering up abuse.

“As bishop of this diocese, I accept the judgement of the court in imposing this sentence. Child sexual abuse is an appalling crime for the lasting harm it inflicts on those abused, their families and ultimately our whole national community.

“Archbishop Wilson is a long-time friend and colleague of mine, and almost like a member of my family. But in these matters all of us must rigorously set aside such considerations in the interests of justice and the protection of children.”

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