Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson has been found guilty of failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse disclosed to him in the 1970s.
The guilty verdict was announced Tuesday by local magistrate Robert Stone.
Currently the head of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, Wilson is the most senior Catholic Church official to be convicted of concealing abuse. The bishop, who has maintained his innocence throughout the trial, could face up to a maximum of two years in jail. It is unknown if he will appeal the verdict.
The sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 19. Archbishop Wilson said in a statement May 22 that he is “obviously disappointed at the decision” and that he will “now have to consider the reasons” and consult with his lawyers to determine the next steps.
The prelate, 67, was convicted of concealing child sexual abuse committed by a fellow parish priest in New South Wales in the 1970s. At the time, Wilson had been ordained a priest for only one year.
The victims of the scandal, Peter Creigh and another altar boy who is unnamed for legal reasons, said they both had told Wilson of their abusive experience with Fr. James Fletcher.
Creigh said that he told Wilson in graphic detail of the abuse in 1976, five years after it had occurred. However, Wilson said the conversation never took place, noting in a court hearing April 11, “I don’t think I would have forgotten that.”
The second victim said he had told Wilson of the abuse in the confessional in 1976, but that Wilson had dismissed the boy with a penance, saying that he was lying. Wilson said he would never tell someone in the confessional that they were untruthful, and that he did not remember having seen the boy at all in 1976.
Fletcher was convicted of nine counts of sexual abuse and was jailed in 2006. He died of a stroke within the year. Wilson said he had no previous suspicions about the integrity of Fletcher’s character.
Wilson also told the court that if he had been notified of the scandal, he would have offered pastoral care to the victims and their families, and reported the event to his superiors.
According to CNN, the archbishop’s legal team argued that in the 1970s, child sex abuse was not understood to be a serious crime that should be reported to authorities.
His legal team had attempted four times to have the case thrown out, including after the archbishop was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease late last year, but it was denied by magistrate Stone.
Wilson said that his current medication is helping his memory, “although it’s not perfect,” according to the Australian Associated Press.
President of the Australian bishops’ conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, said in a statement on the decision May 22 that “the Catholic Church, like other institutions has learned a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse and has implemented stronger programs, policies and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults.”
“The safety of children and vulnerable adults is paramount for the Church and its ministries.”
The conviction comes less than one week after the Australian bishops announced that the Adelaide archdiocese will host the opening session of the bishop conference’s 2020 plenary council to discuss the future of the Church in Australia.
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