A Catholic archbishop in Australia is the most senior Catholic globally to be convicted for concealing child sexual abuse. Philip Wilson, now archbishop of Adelaide, has been given a maximum sentence of 12 months in detention for covering up abuse by a priest in New South Wales.
The sentence is also a reminder to clergy worldwide that they may be held criminally responsible for failing to report abuse.
In May, a court found Wilson had failed to report his colleague James Patrick Fletcher’s abuse of altar boys to police in the 1970s.
Wilson, then a junior priest in the Maitland region, had dismissed young victims in a bid to protect the Church’s reputation, the court’s Magistrate ruled.
Fletcher was convicted of nine child sexual abuse charges in 2004, and died in jail two years later.
During his trial, Wilson denied that he had known about Fletcher’s actions.
The archbishop’s lawyers had sought to have the case thrown out on four occasions, citing the 67-year-old’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease.
One of his victims, former altar boy Peter Creigh, told the court he had described the abuse to Wilson in detail in 1976, five years after it took place.
The court is considering home detention for Wilson, which means he will likely avoid jail.
Meanwhile, Wilson has not resigned as archbishop, however he did relinquish his duties in the wake of his conviction.
Many countries require clergy to report abuse.
In the U.S., more than 40 states specifically designate members of the clergy as mandated reporters of child abuse, either by their office or because the state requires all adults to report the crime. Several clergy have been charged under the laws.
“Boz” Tchividjian, a former child abuse chief prosecutor and founder and executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), said he’s come across three mistaken beliefs about reporting child sexual abuse disclosures made by perpetrators who refuse to report their crimes to the authorities: mandated reporting exceptions prohibit pastors from reporting, clergy-parishioner privilege prohibits pastors from reporting, and rules of evidence prohibit pastors from reporting.
He said none are true, adding, “When pastors are told about the abuse of a child, all too often too much time is spent evaluating and analyzing, instead of reporting. As the evaluations and analysis go on and on, the child is the one that pays the highest price.”