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Philip Wilson charges mark a dark day for the Catholic Church

The Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, has been charged with concealing child sexual abuse in the 1970s. AAP/David Maruiz

On Tuesday, NSW Police charged one of the most senior Catholic clergymen in Australia – the Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson – with the concealment of an allegation of child sexual abuse by convicted paedophile priest James Fletcher in Maitland in the 1970s. Wilson said he will “vigorously defend” his innocence.

The significance of Wilson’s charges

The importance of Wilson being charged cannot be overstated. Despite state inquiries and court hearings finding time and again that Catholic Church clergymen systematically failed to report child sexual abuse to police, no Catholic clergyman in Australia has ever been convicted of this crime.

Only a handful of clergymen have been charged and convicted with this crime globally in, for example, the US and France. Wilson is the most senior clergyman in the world to face this charge.

The charge against Wilson is a result of the ongoing work of Strikeforce Lantle. This was established by Newcastle police in 2010 to investigate the alleged concealment of child sexual abuse by church officials in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

This is a diocese that, like Ballarat in Victoria – and for reasons that remain unclear – has experienced elevated levels of child sexual abuse across many decades by male religious clergymen and teachers.

The Maitland-Newcastle diocese

Much of the evidence that Strikeforce Lantle uncovered was dealt with in the 2013 NSW Special Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. The inquiry report by commissioner Margaret Cunneen was scathing of church officials’ failure to deal with complaints against two child sexual abusers, Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.

The report found that senior clergymen – including two bishops – failed to report relevant information to police, moved the offending priests between parishes, warned one of the priests of an impending police arrest, and gave poor evidence at the inquiry. Even when McAlinden admitted his abuse to fellow priest Brian Lucas in 1993, Lucas failed to report the matter to the police.

This ongoing failure to report and deal with child sexual abuse allegations meant that these two priests went on to abuse many more children across parishes. In McAlinden’s case, this occurred across states and even countries.

What now?

Wilson was a member of the Supervisory Group of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which was purposely set up to handle church responses to the royal commission. He has stood down from this and other official church roles. It remains to be seen what the impact of Wilson’s charge will be on this council and its ongoing claims to provide leadership and independence to the Catholic community in this troubled area.

There is no doubt that the levels of child sexual abuse in Catholic communities across Australia are related to institutional culture and individual failure. The church is a semi-closed institution where a tiny minority of male clergy holds the ecclesial, policy and political reins over a large lay community.

While there is some indication of change, it has been mainly rhetoric. It remains to be seen whether the church is capable of making the institutional changes needed to produce an open and accountable organisation that is capable of safeguarding children.

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