NEW YORK — Bishop Peter Comensoli, who will soon lead Australia’s largest Catholic diocese, is calling on Archbishop Philip Wilson to resign following his conviction for neglecting to report sexual abuse.
Comensoli, who currently leads the diocese of Broken Bay and will be installed as archbishop of Melbourne later this month, adds his voice to the growing number of Australian bishops who believe the disgraced head of the archdiocese of Adelaide should step aside.
“Philip Wilson has chosen to not offer his resignation, and has rightly said he has a right to appeal, which he has done, but in all of that there remains what is good for the people of God in this circumstance, and most particularly, what would be good for the people of the Archdiocese of Adelaide,” Comensoli said in an interview earlier this week with ABC Religion.
“For those reasons I think the path he is taking is not of benefit for God’s people in Adelaide, so I along with a number of other bishops have sought to counsel Philip in that regard,” he continued.
Earlier this month, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, head of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, issued a statement acknowledging that some Australian bishops had privately encouraged Wilson to step aside after he vowed to appeal his conviction.
In May, an Australian court found that Wilson failed to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys by pedophile priest James Fletcher in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney during the 1970s.
Wilson is the highest-ranking official in the Catholic Church ever to be convicted of sex abuse cover-up.
In the meantime, Pope Francis has appointed Port Pirie Bishop Gregory O’Kelly as Apostolic Administrator of the Adelaide archdiocese.
In a statement, O’Kelly said, “The arrangements made by Pope Francis for my care of the Archdiocese as Apostolic Administrator remain in place.”
The recent statements by Coleridge and Comensoli echo statements from both Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten, who have both called for Wilson’s resignation.
In the ABC interview, Comensoli was asked if he would step down if placed in a similar situation.
“As someone who’s not trying to defend my name, and Philip is strongly holding to his innocence and I respect that, so how I would react I don’t know,” he responded.
Despite the strong appeals from the country’s leading prelates, they have also acknowledged that they are effectively powerless in forcing Wilson’s hand in the matter.
“A bishop has a mandate from the pope. I have no jurisdiction over a fellow bishop. I can call out until the cows come home for someone to resign or give up their diocese, and it might have some value by way of influence, but it has no authority about it,” said Comensoli. “If the bishop is to be asked to resign it can only come from the pope.”
In that same ABC interview, Comensoli also hinted at a potential overhaul of the Melbourne archdiocese’s institutional response to victims of clerical sexual abuse.
At present, the current program, known as “The Melbourne Response,” allows for victims of sexual abuse to receive compensation of up to $150,000, however, the program has come under criticism from the country’s Royal Commission for issues related to confidentiality and potential conflicts of interests.
The program was established in 1996 by Cardinal George Pell, then archbishop of Melbourne who would later head the archdiocese of Sydney before being tapped to lead Francis’s reform of the Vatican finances. At the time, it was one of the first institutionalized responses of its kind.
Pell is currently back home in Australia fighting charges of “historical sexual abuse,” which he has vigorously denied. In May, a Melbourne magistrate dismissed some of the most serious charges against Pell but ordered him to stand trial on others.
As archbishop-elect, Comensoli acknowledged that the current program in Melbourne differs from the standard redress programs throughout the country’s Catholic dioceses and that he expects a new system will emerge.
Comensoli, age 54, will replace retiring Archbishop Dennis Hart, who is 77 years old. He has led the diocese of Broken Bay since 2014 and prior to that was an auxiliary bishop in Sydney.