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In landmark ruling, Archbishop Philip Wilson found guilty of covering up child sex abuse

Archbishop Philip Wilson leaves Newcastle Local Court after being found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse. AAP/Peter Lorimer

The Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, has been found guilty in the Newcastle Local Court on charges of failing to report his knowledge about a Catholic priest who had sexually abused a boy in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s. A sentencing hearing will be held on June 19.

Wilson is among a handful of Catholic clerics in the world to be charged with this specific crime, including French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. The findings in the Wilson case come at an important time, with Cardinal George Pell to stand trial on multiple historic sexual assault charges later this year. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also recently recommended that failure to report child sexual abuse become law in all Australian states.

Read more: Royal commission recommends sweeping reforms for Catholic Church to end child abuse

There have been three attempts to prosecute officials of the Catholic Church for concealing the sexual assault of children in the Hunter Valley region – including the case against Wilson.

The first trial was abandoned when the accused died.

In the second, the magistrate found the boy in question had been sexually abused, but evidence relating to the priest’s alleged knowledge of the abuse was inconsistent.

Wilson’s prosecution followed the 2010 airing of allegations on ABC Lateline by survivor Peter Gogarty, who accused Wilson of having knowledge of historic child sex abuse. This led to three people making complaints to Lake Macquarie police, the establishment of Police Strike Force Lantle, and the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into sex abuse allegations related to the Maitland/Newcastle diocese of the Catholic Church.

This ultimately led to Wilson being charged in March 2015. The charge stated that between April 2004 and January 2006, Wilson held the belief that local priest James Patrick Fletcher had committed an indecent assault on a boy. As the case progressed through the courts, the archbishop lodged four appeals to have it thrown out – two in Newcastle Local Court, one in the NSW Supreme Court and one in the Court of Appeal. Each was dismissed.

The implications arising from Wilson’s conviction are wide-reaching and significant, both for the Catholic Church and for other institutions.

First, a successful prosecution means that pending matters arising from the work of the Royal Commission might now have more success before the courts in NSW and Victoria. The reason for this is that both states include laws that criminalise the concealment of a serious indictable offence.

Section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act (1900)requires that for a successful prosecution, the following elements all be met: a serious indictable offence has been committed (one punishable by imprisonment for five years or more); another person knows or believes the offence has been committed; that person knows the information may be of material interest to the police; and they fail to pass on such knowledge without reasonable excuse.

In today’s judgment, Magistrate Robert Stone made it clear Wilson had the requisite knowledge of the offences and the main witness, Peter Creigh, was reliable and truthful in his evidence.

Second, while the Catholic Church has focused on the moral obligations to respond to victims, and relied on Canon law for legal guidance, it will now be forced to recognise its accountability in failing to protect children from sexual abuse by reporting criminal activity to police.

This will have a worldwide impact on the already weakened legitimacy of the church’s moral authority. We could expect increased focus on the activity of high-ranking clerics in failing to report what they knew to civil authorities.

Third, the decision today may have the flow-on effect of influencing other jurisdictions throughout the world to re-evaluate criminal law provisions as they relate to the concealment of childhood sexual abuse.

In Australia, only NSW and Victoria have laws dealing with failing to report criminal activity.

If other state governments respond to the recommendation by the Royal Commission that failing to report and protect children constitutes a crime, we could expect further prosecutions if there were future cases.

Read more: Royal commission report makes preventing institutional sexual abuse a national responsibility

Inquiries into childhood sexual assault within religious and other institutions have invariably shown the life-long scarring that child sex abuse has caused. This was clearly demonstrated in the evidence collected by the Royal Commission.

Despite the scandalous revelations of numerous inquiries in Ireland, Canada, England, the United States and Australia, Pope Francis continues to oppose the need for mandatory reporting of knowledge of child abuse by clerics.

Yesterday’s verdict will ensure that Catholic clerics who knew child sexual abuse was occurring but did nothing to report it are no longer beyond the reach of the criminal justice system.

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