NEWCASTLE, Australia — An Australian archbishop who was the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the world charged with covering up child sex abuse was convicted Tuesday and faces a potential two years in prison.
Magistrate Robert Stone handed down the verdict against Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson in Newcastle Local Court, north of Sydney, following a magistrate-only trial.
Wilson, 67, had pleaded not guilty to knowing of the crimes of a pedophile priest in the 1970s. He denied under oath in court last month that two former altar boys ever told him that they had been sexually abused by a priest.
Wilson, who has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, said he had known one of the former altar boys 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 the boy 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 conversation was unlikely to have occurred because the former altar boy, 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 the boy 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 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.”
The former altar boy alleged he trusted Wilson would take action against the pedophile priest after revealing the abuse, but Wilson did nothing.
The second former altar boy 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 Wilson verdict comes while Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, is due to stand trial for “historical sexual offenses.” Pell is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy, and he becomes the most senior Church official ever to face criminal charges of sexual abuse in a civil court of law.
The leader of Pell’s defense team, Robert Richter, told an Australian court in March there was no way a jury could convict the cardinal because of the improbability of the allegations and because the complainants who made them had no credibility and could not be believed.
Richter also suggested that Pell had been targeted due to perceived failures to respond adequately to abuse allegations against other clergy, both as a priest and as the archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney.
Lead prosecutor Mark Gibson argued that while there were conflicts in some of the evidence, the differences were questions for a jury, and that the accusers had never wavered in their allegations against Pell.
Crux staff also contributed to this report.