Archbishop Wilson convicted of covering up sex abuse avoids prison

Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson (middle) is the highest ranking Catholic official to be convicted of covering up sexual abuse.

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,” he added.

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.

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.

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.

Abuse of power

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.

Landmark commission

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.