By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
One of Australia’s most senior Catholics has been found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse and faces a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
The section provides that:
“If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed and that he or she has information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for it fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the Police Force or other appropriate authority, that other person is liable to imprisonment for 2 years.”
A ‘serious indictable offence’ is one that carries a maximum penalty of 5 years or more, which applies to most assault and sexual assault offences.
‘Concealing a serious indictable offence’ is a ‘summary offence’, which means it is dealt with in the Local Court, rather than committed to a higher court such as the District or Supreme Court.
It was alleged the Archbishop covered up sexual abuse by a fellow priest – convicted child sex offender James Fletcher – in the New South Wales Hunter region in the 1970s.
The victim, Peter Creigh, reported that he informed Wilson in 1976 at the age of 15 that Priest Fletcher had sexually abused him years earlier – when he was a 10-year-old altar boy. Mr Creigh said he raised the matter again with Wilson some months later, but nothing was done.
Fletcher was arrested and charged in 2004 with sexually abusing another altar boy, and the investigation also revealed a long history of molesting boys.
Mr Creigh says Archbishop Wilson should have formed the belief at that time, if not beforehand, that Creigh was a victim of sexual abuse, but did not to report the matter to police or assist police in their investigations.
Priest Fletcher was subsequently found guilty of the offences. He died in prison in 2006.
Four attempts to have the case thrown out
Archbishop’s Wilson’s lawyers are reported to have made four attempts for their client’s case to be thrown out of court, arguing among other things that their client’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would make it impossible for him to face a defended hearing.
Two separate applications were rejected by a magistrate and a Supreme Court justice, and the Archbishop then lost an attempt last year to rule have the charges dismissed in Sydney’s Court of Appeal.
The court pointed out that despite having Alzheimer’s, the Archbishop retained his high position with the church throughout the criminal proceedings.
The gist of Wilson’s defence was that while Peter Creigh was indeed abused by Fletcher as a child, Wilson, who was an assistant parish priest, did not know about it.
Today, Magistrate Stone found the Archbishop guilty as charged in Newcastle Local Court. While accepting the defendant had no role in the sexual assaults themselves, the magistrate found it was “incomprehensible” that Wilson did not remember something of the allegations.
“I am satisfied and find that Mr Creigh described to the accused he performed fellatio of Fletcher and masturbated Mr Fletcher”, said Magistrate Stone.
“The accused must have known he had very relevant knowledge. Further, he should have realised he had knowledge of a number of boys who had complained to him… I am satisfied the accused had information that he knew or believed that might be of assistance.”
“Any allegation perpetrated on young boys by someone you have lived with is going to remain with you, no matter how long”.
The matter was adjourned for sentencing on 19 June. The Archbishop remains in the community on bail until that time.
Catholic Church’s long history of cover-ups
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that clergy who fail to report child sexual assaults disclosed during religious confessions should face criminal charges.
However, the NSW government has refused to adopt that recommendation.
During the Commission’s investigations, it was revealed that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia and that at least 4,444 children were victims of sexual abuse while in the care of the Catholic Church between 1980 and 2015.
Another high-ranking Catholic official, Cardinal George Pell, is also due to stand trial later this year over multiple historical child sexual assault allegations, with a trial date yet to be set.
Charges were laid against Pell last year after a lengthy investigation by Victoria Police, which was based on allegations that came to light during the Royal Commission.