An Australian court convicted 67-year-old Archbishop Philip Wilson of covering up child sexual abuse, making him the most senior Catholic cleric convicted in such a case.
Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, pleaded not guilty to concealing the sexual abuse of altar boys in the 1970s at the hands of pedophile priest James Fletcher, according to The Associated Press.
Magistrate Robert Stone nonetheless ruled that Wilson was guilty, based largely on the testimony of two former altar boys and sex abuse victims, one Peter Creigh and another who cannot be named for legal reasons. (RELATED: Australia Decides Most Senior Vatican Official Accused Of Sex Crimes Will Stand Trial)
Frank Brennan, an Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, said that Wilson had been constrained by the church’s culture of nondisclosure in the 1970s. He claimed that Wilson had done good work in his later years to try to rid the church of abuse, but that he should resign as archbishop given his conviction.
“There’s no doubt that Archbishop Wilson in recent years … has been one of the good guys. He has been one of the bishops in the Catholic Church who have been trying to clean things up. But this relates to when he was a young priest. Even someone like him who later got it back in those years was so confined by our culture that it would seem there was no disclosure,” Brennan said, according to AP.
Wilson issued a statement after the ruling saying that he was “obviously disappointed at the decision published today,” according to Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“I will now have to consider the reasons and consult closely with my lawyers to determine the next steps,” he added.
Wilson suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and told the court in April that he did not remember Creigh or the other altar boy telling him they had been sexually abused in 1976. The unnamed former altar boy said that he went into graphic detail about the abuse when describing it to Wilson in the confessional.
“I don’t think I would have forgotten that,” Wilson said, according to New York Post.
Wilson also contested the allegation that he accused the boy of lying about the abuse in the confessional.
Abuse victims like Peter Gogarty hailed the conviction called for the magistrate to issue a jail sentence.
“Archbishop Wilson knew what James Patrick Fletcher was up to in 1976,” Gogarty said, according to ABC. “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.”
Jason Parkinson, a lawyer who specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases and a former police detective, said he hoped Wilson’s conviction would pave the way for prosecutors to target orders of Catholic teaching brothers who mishandled or actively concealed reports of child sexual abuse.
“Hopefully this conviction means that more prosecutions can be launched against the brothers of various teaching orders,” Parkinson said, according to AP. “These brothers/headmasters should be investigated — starting with the ones still in the teaching system.”
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