The highest ranking Catholic official to be convicted of covering up sex abuse has been spared prison and sentenced to six months’ home detention in Australia, due to his ailing health and age.
The Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson was found guilty in May of concealing the abuse of altar boys in the 1970s by pedophile priest James Fletcher.
Wilson, 67, who stepped aside from his role after his conviction but has not yet resigned, had been facing a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
It is a landmark conviction that could have far-reaching implications for other clergy members as the child sexual abuse scandal continues to hit the Catholic Church globally.
Making his ruling in front of a packed courtroom in Newcastle, New South Wales, Magistrate Robert Stone handed Wilson a 12 month prison sentence. However, due to his physical condition, Stone said Wilson would be given six months’ home detention, followed by six months parole.
Magistrate Robert Stone told Wilson the reason for his sentence was due to the “the criminality of the concealment” and recognizing the “harm done to the community.”
The magistrate noted during his decision that there was now “so much public outcry” regarding child abuse cover up in the Catholic Church and other religious groups.
“Therefore I consider it a matter that should be regarded as serious,” said Stone. “By concealing abuse it is demonstrating you are placing the needs of the perpetrator above the child.”
Wilson did not say anything on leaving court, ignoring repeated questions from the media about whether he would resign or apologize to the victims.
No custodial sentence
After the magistrate handed down his decision he asked Wilson to stand and told him his sentence. Survivors in the court including victims of Fletcher muttered their frustration the archbishop was not sent to prison. “It’s basically a holiday,” one lady said.
Speaking outside the court, victim Peter Gogarty said he was “disappointed that it’s not a custodial sentence,” but expressed hope Wilson would be assessed as unsuitable for home detention and end up behind bars.
There will be a hearing on August 14 to determine whether home detention is appropriate for Wilson and where he could stay, with his sister’s house raised as one option.
“We have made history here in Australia, (this is the) highest ranked church official to ever be brought to account for what we know is a world wide systematic abuse of children and the concealment of that abuse,” Gogarty said. “We have done something in Australia which no one else has been able to manage.”
CNN understands from sources in Rome that Pope Francis will not ask Wilson, who has held his senior post for 18 years, to resign until it is decided if he will appeal.
Gogarty said Wilson should resign, adding that if he does not “then the Catholic Church becomes a bigger laughing stock than it already is.”
Des Cahil, a professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and adviser to the Australian Royal Commission on child abuse, said Wilson had received a “just and fair sentence, given the circumstances that he was a young priest at the time, firmly under the influence of a clericalism that says church law prevails over criminal law.”
Other victims advocates were less enthused. Chrissie Foster, who is credited with helping to establish the Royal Commission after two of her three daughters were abused by a Melbourne bishop, said it was “outrageous.”
“We all understand how clergy perpetrators got away with so many crimes against children and how the trademark coverups of priests like Wilson helped,” she added. “Today society expects more than a slap on the wrist of those who helped prolong clergy sexual crimes against children.”
Detective Jeff Little, who led the investigation into Wilson, emphasized outside court that the Archbishop could still end up in prison if he is assessed unsuitable for home detention.
“But the most important thing here is the actual conviction,” Little said.
Mary-Jane Creigh, the sister of Peter Creigh, the victim who was ignored by Wilson in 1976, read a statement from her brother outside court after he was too ill to attend.
Creigh praised the efforts of Little and other investigators, saying without them Wilson’s conviction “would not have been possible.”
He expressed hope it would lead to more probes into the Catholic Church, an “organization that has betrayed society on such a huge scale.”
In a statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it hoped “today’s custodial sentence brings some sense of peace and healing to those abused by deceased priest James Fletcher.”
“The Church has made substantial changes to ensure that abuse and coverup are not part of Catholic life and that children are safe in our communities,” it added.
The statement did not mention whether Wilson should resign from his position or if the Church would take any additional action against him.
Abuse of power
Wilson’s legal defense had argued during an earlier hearing two weeks ago that a conviction and a good behavior bond was sufficient for the crime.
The Archbishop’s lawyers previously argued he had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease which should preclude him from trial, but the bid was rejected.
Wilson was an assistant priest when Fletcher, a Catholic priest based in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, abused altar boys in the mid-1970s.
The Archbishop, failed to report the abuse to authorities, allowing Fletcher to remain in the clergy and abuse other children in the following years.
Wilson and Fletcher went their separate ways after 1976. Wilson would begin his climb through the church’s hierarchy, which would culminate in him becoming the Archbishop of Adelaide in 2001.
Fletcher was never charged with any offending relating to his behavior in 1976. However, in 2004, Fletcher was convicted of eight counts of child abuse and sentenced to 10 years. The eight charges were committed between 1989 and 1991.
Fletcher died in prison in 2006, a year after he sentenced to 10 years. Wilson was charged in 2015, accused of failing to report Fletcher’s abuse to police.
During the case Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison had to prove that former alter boy Peter Creig told Archbishop Wilson about the sexual abuse in 1976.
On the day Wilson was convicted, Criegh, who waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, said it was a “very, very significant day.”
“It’s a decision that will hopefully unravel the hypocrisy, the deceit, and the abuse of power and trust that the Church has displayed,” he told the ABC.
In October, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will issue a formal apology to child sexual abuse victims as part of the government’s response to a sweeping five-year inquiry in institutional child abuse.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its final report last December, describing a “serious failure” by Australia’s institutions to protect child victims and listing 409 recommendations.
The landmark report estimated that tens of thousands of children had been abused in Australian churches, youth groups, care homes and schools, in what the commission described as a “national tragedy.”
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has said he felt ashamed of the church’s failure to listen to victims of child sex abuse and has called for an end to the culture of abuse and coverup.