By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Adelaide Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson’s lawyers have said their client intends to appeal his conviction for concealing child sexual abuse.
The 67-year old is believed to be the highest ranking Catholic in the world to be convicted of concealing child sex offences, after being found guilty last month of failing to report the sexual abuse of two altar boys between 2004 and 2006.
Mr Wilson faced a maximum penalty of two years in prison. He was sentenced last week to twelve months behind bars with a six-month non-parole period, and is at liberty on bail while being assessed for home detention.
The sentence has outraged victims’ groups, who believe heavy penalties should be imposed on those in positions of authority and trust in order to act as a deterrent to others – especially in the context of the recent Royal Commission’s findings that at least 4,444 children were sexually abused in 93 Australian Catholic institutions between 1980 and 2015.
Calls for sacking
Many are dumbfounded that the Catholic Church has refused to sack Mr Wilson in spite of the conviction, saying the failure to act further erodes public confidence in the institution.
The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have both called for the Archbishop to resign or for the Church to terminate his position – but those calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
NSW Police Minister Troy Grant has also been outspoken about the sentence and inaction of the Church.
In response, the Archbishop has promised to resign if his appeal fails. He has also indicated an intention to stand aside from official duties pending the outcome of the appeal.
“I am conscious of calls for me to resign and gave taken them, very seriously,” Mr Wilson said in a statement.
“I do not intend to resign at this time. However, if I am unsuccessful in my appeal, I will immediately offer my resignation to the Holy See.”
This is cold comfort for thousands irreparably damaged by abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests, and it seems that in the face of public outrage the institution continues in its refusal to sufficiently acknowledge the systemic sexual abuse of young children let alone act towards making amends – if that is even possible.
Catholic Church: above the law
Recently, South Australian Catholic Priests vowed to defy a forthcoming state law which will require them to report information received during past or present confessions about child sexual abuse – whether by perpetrators or children who feel ashamed of what occurred to them.
The Priests say the confession is ‘sacred’ and that Canon law dictates they are not permitted to disclose information received therein.
In New South Wales, the state parliament has refused to enact a similar law despite it being one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission.
Failure to sufficiently acknowledge or assist victims
The Catholic Church has also been criticised for failing to adequately compensate victims of sexual abuse.
According to figures released earlier this year, the Catholic Church in Australia is reportedly worth around $30 billion. It is exempt from rates and taxes, despite its vast property and investment portfolio. It also receives regular government grants for its vast network of schools, hospitals and welfare agencies.
Yet, it has spent millions of dollars on lawyers to avoid paying victims of abuse.
Under Australian law, the Church cannot be sued, and its ‘redress schemes’ have been widely criticised as difficult to access and inadequate, offering what has been described as “paltry compensation” to victims who are able to overcome the various accessibility hurdles.
Money to burn on criminal defence lawyers
While Archbishop Wilson has the same right as anyone else to appeal his conviction, many find it interesting that prior to his trial in April, his criminal defence team reportedly made four separate (and costly) attempts to have his case thrown out of court, arguing among other things that their client’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would make it impossible for him to face court.
Two separate applications were rejected by a magistrate and a Supreme Court justice, and Wilson then lost an attempt last year to have the charges against him dismissed by the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal.
That said, Mr Wilson has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the sexual abuse perpetrated on young boys by Priest James Fletcher.
Mr Fletcher was arrested and charged in 2004 with sexually assaulting children. He was subsequently found guilty of multiple offences after an investigation revealed a long history of molesting boys.
Fletcher died behind bars in 2006.