Australian Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson dies unexpectedly at age 70

Archbishop Philip Wilson Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Adelaide CNA Archbishop Philip Wilson. Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Adelaide.

The Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson died on Sunday at the age of 70.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops' conference, announced that Wilson had died unexpectedly on the afternoon of Jan. 17.

Coleridge, the archbishop of Brisbane, described Wilson as "a true man of the Church and a good friend who suffered greatly."

"Beyond the darkness of Calvary may he know the light of Easter," he wrote on his Twitter account.

Adelaide archdiocese said on Jan. 17 that Wilson had suffered "a series of health problems in recent years, including cancer" but that his death on Sunday was nevertheless unexpected.

Wilson was appointed as coadjutor archbishop of Adelaide in 2000, succeeding Archbishop Leonard Faulkner a year later. 

He attracted international media attention in 2018 when he was convicted of concealing abuse by a priest named Fr. Jim Fletcher who served in Maitland diocese along with Wilson in the 1970s.

After Wilson was sentenced to 12 months of home detention, he submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, which was accepted on July 30, 2018. 

He had initially planned to decide whether to step down following the completion of his appeal process. 

But speaking after his resignation, he said: "There is just too much pain and distress being caused by my maintaining the office of Archbishop of Adelaide, especially to the victims of Fr. Fletcher."

"I must end this and therefore have decided that my resignation is the only appropriate step to take in the circumstances."

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.

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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."

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