NEWCASTLE, Australia — A Catholic archbishop on Wednesday denied under oath in an Australian court that two former altar boys ever told him that they had been sexually abused by a priest.
Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson is the most senior cleric in the world to be charged with covering up for a pedophile priest.
The 67-year-old was tried in the Newcastle Local Court on Wednesday after Magistrate Robert Stone rejected his application to have the case thrown out. Wilson has pleaded not guilty and faces a potential two-year prison sentence if convicted.
Wilson, who has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, said he had known one of the former altar boys, Peter Creigh, and his family when he was an assistant priest in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney in the mid-1970s.
But the archbishop said he had no memory of Creigh telling him in 1976 he had been sexually abused by priest James Fletcher five years earlier when he was 10.
Wilson told the court the alleged conversation was unlikely to have occurred because Creigh, when giving evidence in December, alleged he went into graphic detail about what Fletcher had done to him.
“I don’t think I would have forgotten that,” Wilson told the court.
Asked by his lawyer Stephen Odgers what he would have done if Creigh had told him about the abuse, Wilson said his first priority would have been to provide pastoral care to the then 15-year-old boy and his family.
The archbishop said he would also have reported the allegations to his superiors.
Fletcher was found guilty in December 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse and died in jail of a stroke in 2006, while serving an almost eight-year sentence.
Wilson told the court he had not been aware that Fletcher had abused boys.
Asked by Odgers if he had had any suspicions about Fletcher, Wilson replied: “No, I had none.”
Creigh alleged he trusted Wilson would take action against the pedophile priest after revealing the abuse, but Wilson did nothing.
The second former altar boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, alleged he was about 11 in 1976 when he went into the confessional box to tell Wilson that Fletcher had abused him.
The witness alleged Wilson told him he was telling lies because Fletcher “was a good bloke.” The witness said Wilson had ordered him out of the confessional and told him to recite 10 Hail Mary prayers as an act of contrition.
Wilson said he had no memory of seeing the second altar boy at all in 1976, and he would never accuse anyone in the confessional of telling lies.
Questioned about his health, Wilson said the prescribed medication he was taking to treat his Alzheimer’s had helped improve his memory, “although it’s not perfect.”
The archbishop has attempted four times to have the charge thrown out of court.
The trial is expected to continue until Friday.