NEWCASTLE, Australia — A prosecutor told an Australian court on Tuesday that the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse must be jailed to send a message that such institutional cover ups will no longer be tolerated.
Newcastle Magistrate Robert Stone said he would sentence Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson on July 3.
Stone last month found Wilson guilty in the Newcastle Local Court of failing to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys by a pedophile priest in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney during the 1970s. Wilson faces a potential maximum sentence of two years in prison.
The conviction is another step toward holding the Church to account for a global abuse crisis that has also engulfed Pope Francis’s financial minister, Australian Cardinal George Pell. Some lawyers said they expect many more clerics to be charged in Australia as a result of Wilson’s test case.
Prosecutor Gareth Harrison told a hearing Tuesday to determine an appropriate sentence that there was a “breach of trust” between the vulnerable teen, who — along with another altar boy — came forward in 1976 with allegations against a priest who later died in prison.
“A 15-year-old boy came to him for help … this wasn’t a split-second decision,” Harrison told the magistrate.
Wilson had lied in court about his knowledge of the abuse allegations and “the root of each of those lies is the unflinching loyalty to the Catholic Church and protecting it at all costs,” Harrison said.
Harrison argued that the 67-year-old Wilson should be locked up to deter other religious leaders, to denounce his conduct and to recognize the harm done to the victims.
Defense lawyer Ian Temby told the magistrate that imprisonment would likely worsen Wilson’s chronic illnesses and may put him at risk of assault from fellow inmates.
The cleric suffers from diabetes, heart and Alzheimer’s disease, and depression — conditions that would further deteriorate behind bars and “may even threaten his survival,” Temby said.
Instead, Wilson’s legal team argued for the cleric to be released on a good behavior bond.
Temby noted that Wilson was the first Australian Catholic bishop to introduce police checks of all clergy, a child protection council bringing in experts from outside the Church and an audit system of parishes to ensure compliance.
“The offender is not just a man … who has no prior convictions, but is, in fact, a man of prior positive good character with particular reference to the general field of prevention of child sexual abuse,” Temby said.
Harrison said there was no evidence to suggest Wilson would be attacked in prison and that his medical condition was not an excuse to escape punishment.
“Ill health cannot be a license to commit a crime,” he said.
Wilson stood aside from the Adelaide archdiocese following his conviction in May and said if it became necessary for him to resign he would do so.
Pell, who was one of Francis’s top aides, faces trial in his home state of Victoria on sex abuse charges. Details of the allegations have not been made public.
Francis has recently insisted top clerics be held responsible for failing to swiftly crack down on pedophile priests.