In December 2018, a district judge overturned the conviction, saying that there was reasonable doubt a crime had been committed.
Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis said that Wilson could not be convicted merely because the “Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of its historical self-protective approach” to clerical sex abuse.
“It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest,” he said.
Wilson was born on October 2, 1950, in Cessnock, New South Wales. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1975, he was appointed assistant priest of the parish of East Maitland.
After pursuing studies in New York City, he was appointed director of religious education in the diocese of Maitland, then vicar general.
He studied canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., from 1990 to 1995.
In 1996, at the age of 45, he became Australia’s youngest bishop when Pope John Paul II named him bishop of Wollongong, which covers the Illawarra and Southern Highlands regions of New South Wales.
At the time of his appointment, Wollongong diocese was engulfed in an abuse crisis. Wilson issued a formal apology to abuse victims on behalf of the Church.
In 2002, he was invited to address a special session of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as the bishops struggled to respond to a wave of clerical abuse cases.
A USCCB spokesman said at the time that Wilson was invited because he was “wise in matters of faith, skilled in diocesan leadership and experienced in dealing with the scandal and the pain and misfortune that clerical crimes bring upon bishops, the people and the Church.”
“He has faced the same challenges in his own country and has done so with grace, dignity, and confidence,” he commented.
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Wilson served as president of the Australian bishops’ conference for two terms, from 2006 to 2010.
Archbishop Patrick O’Regan, who was named Wilson’s successor in Adelaide in March 2020, noted on Jan. 17 that Wilson was much loved by people across Australia.
“He made major contributions to the Church and the wider communities in which he ministered, and was seen as a valuable part of the bishops’ conference, including during four years as president of the national assembly of about 40 bishops,” he said
Referring to the overturning of Wilson’s conviction, O’Regan continued: “A harrowing period of allegations, charges, conviction and eventually acquittal was a significant chapter on Philip’s life, but his record of supporting and advocating on behalf of victims and survivors is part of his legacy.”
“Philip knew what pain many people had endured and suffered as a result of the sickening actions of some within the Church. He was part of the solution, and widely recognized as such.”