Archbishop Wilson's conviction of not reporting abuse overturned

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

A district judge overturned Thursday the conviction of Archbishop Philip Wilson for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse disclosed to him in the 1970s, saying there was reasonable doubt a crime had been committed.

Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis said Dec. 6 that the Crown had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Archbishop Wilson did not report abuse committed by Fr. James Fletcher, when Fletcher was charged in 2004 with child abuse which occurred between 1989 and 1991.

Peter Creigh, and another altar boy who is unnamed for legal reasons, said they both had told Wilson in 1976 of their abusive experience with Fr. Fletcher.

Archbishop Wilson, 68, resigned as Archbishop of Adelaide July 30.

Ellis said that "there were very honest features" of Archbishop Wilson's evidence which "provide a strong platform for him to be an honest witness," and that "there is no proper basis on which I can rely to reject" the prelate's evidence, according to the ABC.

The judge also noted that the archbishop "did not attempt to blacken the name of Peter Creigh and allege he was a liar," calling it an indication of the prelate's "overall honesty."

Archbishop Wilson did not say he disbelieved Creigh, which Ellis said "is once again supportive of his honesty as a witness," The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Ellis questioned his memory of the conversation Creigh says he had with Wilson 42 years ago, and said there were inconsistencies in Creigh's evidence, asking: "Was the duration of the abuse, six or nine months?"

While calling Creigh "an honest witness doing his best to recall events in 1976," Ellis said that "acceptance of Mr Peter Creigh as an honest witness does not automatically mean I would be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he complained to Philip Wilson in 1976 that James Fletcher had indecently assaulted him."

"It is not inconceivable that in looking back Mr Creigh convinced himself that he had complained rather than asking himself why he didn't complain, which might especially be so if he had wanted to complain but never actually did."

Creigh made "no complaint to anyone until he told his family 33 years later in 2009," Ellis said, adding that he "made no notes of the conversation with Philip Wilson either at the time or shortly after the alleged conversation, nor at any time during the ensuing 39 years."

The judge also noted the possibility of undue media influence on the case.

"This is not a criticism of media, but intended or not, the mere presence of large amounts of media from all around Australia and the world carries with it a certain amount of pressure on the court," Ellis stated.

The heavy media presence "may amount to perceived pressure for a court to reach a conclusion which seems to be consistent with the direction of public opinion, rather than being consistent with the rule of law that requires a court to hand down individual justice in its decision-making processes."

"The potential for media pressure to impact judicial independence may be subtle or indeed subversive in the sense that it is the elephant in the room that no one sees or acknowledges or wants to see or acknowledge," Ellis said.

He added that Archbishop 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. "Philip Wilson when he appears before this court is simply an individual who has the same legal rights as every other person in our community."

"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."

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Archbishop Wilson did not attend the court in person, but watched the decision via media link.

The Crown has said it will appeal Ellis' decision.

The archbishop has maintained his innocence throughout the process, saying he had no recollection of the accusations, and insisting that if he had been notified of the scandal, he would have offered pastoral care to the victims and their families, and reported the event to his superiors.

Fr. Philip Marshall, administrator delegate of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, said we "welcome the conclusion of a process that has been long and painful for all concerned. We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome."

"The survivors of child sexual abuse and their families are in our thoughts and prayers, and the Archdiocese remains committed to providing the safest possible environments for children and vulnerable people in our care," Fr. Marshall added.

Archbishop Wilson had been convicted May 22, and was sentenced to 12 months of home detention in July. He had been serving the sentence at the home of a relative in New South Wales, wearing a tracking device.

Archbishop Wilson resigned as Archbishop of Adelaide in July, after having said initially he would only do so if his appeal failed.

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He said he changed his mind because "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," and he had become "increasingly worried at the growing level of hurt" his conviction had caused.

Wilson was ordained a priest in 1975, and consecrated a bishop in 1996.

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