An Australian archbishop is facing up to two years in prison after being convicted of concealing child sex abuse by a fellow priest in the 1970s.
Archbishop Philip Wilson is the highest ranking Catholic official to be convicted of covering up sexual abuse, part of a global scandal which has dogged the Vatican for decades.
The 67-year-old archbishop of Adelaide was found guilty of having concealed the abuse of altar boys by a pedophile priest colleague, James Fletcher, in the 1970s, when he was an assistant parish priest in the state of New South Wales.
Magistrate Robert Stone ruled the “offense proven.”
As part of his defense, Wilson’s legal team argued that as child sexual abuse was not considered a serious crime in the 1970s, it was not worthy of being reported to authorities, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
In a statement issued by the church on Wednesday, Wilson said he was “obviously disappointed” with the verdict.
“I will now have to consider the reasons and consult closely with my lawyers to determine the next steps … I do not propose to make any further comment at this stage,” he added.
Archbishop Wilson was a junior priest when Fletcher, a Catholic Priest based in the Hunter Valley of NSW, abused altar boys. Wilson was charged in 2015, accused of failing to report Fletcher’s abuse to police.
Fletcher died in prison in 2006, a year after being found guilty of eight counts of child abuse and sentenced to 10 years.
Speaking to reporters outside the Newcastle Court on Tuesday, one of Fletcher’s victims praised the Archbishop’s conviction.
Former altar boy Peter Creigh, who waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, said, “It’s a decision that will hopefully unravel the hypocrisy, the deceit, and the abuse of power and trust that the Church has displayed. And I say that on behalf of all victims, because it is a very, very significant day.”
Creigh told the court he had described the abuse to Wilson in detail, five years after it took place, the ABC reported.
Stone said he did not accept Wilson could not remember the 1976 conversation, in which Creigh, who would have been aged 15 at that time, described his abuse at the hands of Fletcher, ABC added.
Wilson is expected to be sentenced by the court in June. He faces a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) said the safety of children is “paramount” for the church and it was not yet clear if the Archbishop planned to appeal the verdict.
“The Catholic Church, like other institutions, has learned a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse and has implanted stronger programs, policies, and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults,” ACBC President Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in a statement.
Allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church stretch across multiple countries with large Catholic populations, including Austria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and perhaps most famously, the United States, where children accused more than 4,000 priests of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, according to a report compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Earlier this month, Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell faced his first appearance at an Australian higher court, after a Melbourne magistrate ordered him to stand trial on multiple charges of historical abuse.
Pell is the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged assault. He is on leave from the Vatican while he contests the claims.
The charges relate to claims of historical sexual abuse spanning three decades, and include events that allegedly took place at a swimming pool in rural Victoria in the 1970s and at St Patrick’s Cathedral during the 1990s, when Pell served as Archbishop of Melbourne.
In December 2017, a Royal Commission in Australia made recommendations that the Vatican should move to change ancient canon laws in order to reduce future risk of sexual abuse.
The recommendations included making celibacy voluntary for priests and making mandatory reporting of abuse to police if an admission is made during confession.
The inquiry heard that 7% of Catholic priests working in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes and that more than 1,000 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.