An Australian archbishop on Tuesday became the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the world convicted of covering up child sex abuse in a test case that holds to account church hierarchy that kept silent in the face of an international pedophile crisis.
Magistrate Robert Stone handed down the verdict against Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson in Newcastle Local Court, north of Sydney, following a magistrate-only trial.
Wilson, 67, had pleaded not guilty to concealing a serious crime committed by another person — the sexual abuse of children by pedophile priest James Fletcher in the 1970s.
He had made four attempts in the past three years to have the charge struck out without a trial.
The conviction is another step toward holding the church to account for a global abuse crisis that has also engulfed Pope Francis’ financial minister, Australian Cardinal George Pell.
Frank Brennan, an Australian Jesuit priest, human rights lawyer and academic, said Wilson had to stand aside as archbishop of the South Australian state capital.
“I would think that the mind of Pope Francis at this stage would be that if there be a conviction of a bishop in relation to a failure to disclose abuse in circumstances where the state thought that was criminal activity, then I would think the mind of the pope would be that that doesn’t measure up in church terms either and that therefore it would be impossible for someone to remain in the job as a bishop,” Brennan said.
Brennan said Wilson had complied with the nondisclosure culture of the church in the 1970s.
“There’s no doubt that Archbishop Wilson in recent years ... has been one of the good guys. He has been one of the bishops in the Catholic Church who have been trying to clean things up,” Brennan said.
“But this relates to when he was a young priest. Even someone like him who later got it back in those years was so confined by our culture that it would seem there was no disclosure,” he added.
Jason Parkinson, a former police detective who is now a Canberra lawyer who specializes in representing victims of clergy child sexual abuse, said he hoped police would now pursue Catholic orders of teaching brothers that responded to families’ complaints by transferring perpetrators to other schools.