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Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson convicted, but spared jail for covering up child sexual abuse

ADELAIDE Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson has been convicted of failing to report child sexual abuse to police, but spared a jail term after a magistrate ordered he be assessed for home detention. 

The 67-year-old Archbishop – the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse – showed no emotion as he was told he would likely avoid a full-time jail term in Newcastle Local Court on Tuesday.

Wilson, who stood aside, but refused to resign from his position after sensationally being found guilty in May following a landmark eight-day hearing, was sentenced to a 12-month home detention order.

Magistrate Robert Stone said he should be assessed as to his suitability to serve the sentence at a family member’s home in NSW and adjourned the matter until August 14. 

Mr Stone had said that given the criminality of the offence and the need for general deterrence, only a custodial sentence could be imposed.

He said a suspended jail term did not support the need to deter others from similar offending and due to his age Wilson would likely be unsuitable for an intensive corrections order (ICO), a form of custodial sentence served in the community.

That left full-time jail or home detention and given Wilson’s age, mental and physical conditions, and the fact that he had nothing else on his criminal record, Mr Stone found he could be adequately punished with a 12-month home detention order. 

There was audible groans from the packed public gallery as Mr Stone confirmed Wilson would not be heading to jail on Tuesday. 

Earlier, Mr Stone had said he found that the only reasonable conclusion for Wilson concealing the child sexual abuse allegations was that he was protecting the Catholic Church. 

He said the predicate offence, that is the criminal offence that Wilson was covering up, only carried a maximum of five years, the lowest of all strictly indictable offences.

But that was offset by the “public outcry and outrage by what has transpired with the concealment of child sexual abuse” in Australia.  

“Those who conceal abuse and shield perpetrators from prosecution… are placing the needs of perpetrators over their victims and their families,” Mr Stone said

“Infliction of gross acts of sexual abuse on people who are young and vulnerable.

“Children who are irreparably harmed and parents who are treated with total indifference and contempt.”

Wilson had been put on notice after Mr Stone’s verdict that the prosecution would be pressing for a jail term, with Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison submitting that the need for denunciation and general deterrence loomed large in such a high-profile case.

However, defence barrister, Ian Temby, QC, had urged Mr Stone to convict Wilson but place him on a good behaviour bond, saying he should be spared a jail term due to his ailing mental health and the risk he would be seriously assaulted behind bars.

Mr Temby handed up a raft of character references during last month’s sentence hearing, which he said showed Archbishop Wilson was a “true leader of the church” and a trailblazer in terms of introducing police checks and compliance systems.  

“We'll be developing a case that he is not just a man who has no prior convictions,” Mr Temby said. 

“But he is in fact a man of prior positive good character, with particular reference to the general field of prevention of child sexual abuse and the protection of children.” 

Mr Stone said on Tuesday that Wilson’s good character was reduced somewhat because the victim had trusted him to do the right thing back in 1976.

He also said Wilson had shown no remorse or contrition for concealing the child sexual abuse. 

Mr Temby also produced a number of medical reports, which detailed the risk that the Archbishop Wilson would be assaulted in jail or that his mental health would deteriorate. 

“These considerations would impact substantially on the Archbishop's health and well-being and may even threaten his survival,” Mr Temby said when referring to one of the medical reports. 

Mr Stone said on Tuesday that those suggestions were merely “speculation” and not relevant to his assessment. 

Wilson was found guilty of failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse against paedophile priest Father Jim Fletcher, who died in jail in 2006.

Peter Creigh, a former altar boy, who bravely waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, had told the hearing that in 1976 he told Archbishop Wilson, then a junior priest at St Joseph’s Church, East Maitland, that Father Fletcher had subjected him to acts of punishment and sexual abuse about five years earlier. 

There was no dispute during the hearing that Fletcher, a notorious paedophile, had sexually abused the then 10-year-old Mr Creigh.

Instead, the hearing focused on whether the conversation between Mr Creigh and Archbishop Wilson took place and whether the Archbishop remembered the allegation and believed it was true between 2004 and 2006. 

Archbishop Wilson took the stand in April and said he didn't remember the conversation at the heart of the hearing and doubted it ever took place because he wouldn’t have forgotten such “graphic” claims. 

It was a circumstantial case and the prosecution had to overcome a number of significant hurdles in their bid to prove Archbishop Wilson concealed the sexual abuse allegations against Fletcher. 

Not only did Mr Harrison have to prove that Mr Creigh told Archbishop Wilson about the sexual abuse in 1976, but that Archbishop Wilson remembered it and had a belief that the allegations were true between 2004 and 2006, after Fletcher had been charged with child sex offences and before his death in jail. 

They also had to prove that Archbishop Wilson knew or believed he had information which might be of assistance in securing the prosecution of Fletcher for the sexual abuse offences against Mr Creigh. 

Ultimately, Mr Stone believed Mr Creigh and the other prosecution witnesses, Hunter parishioners who went to Wilson for guidance or support and were fobbed off or lied to, over the Archbishop. 

Each piece of circumstantial evidence was a “strand in a cable”, Mr Stone said, twisted and twined together to make an unbreakable case against Archbishop Wilson.

The Archbishop’s legal team had tried four times to have the case against him thrown out before he took the stand in April.

He has not publicly indicated whether or not he is going to launch an all grounds appeal against Mr Stone’s judgement.