An Australian archbishop said he was stepping aside from his church duties after a Newcastle court on Tuesday found him guilty of concealing child sex abuse committed by a fellow priest in the early 1970s.
Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson (pictured- Credit-CNS), 67, who still denied the charges, may face a two-year jail term when the court meets again in June to sentence him.
One of the victims, a 15-year-old altar boy then, told Wilson in 1976 how he was abused by priest James Fletcher five years earlier.
Wilson was then an assistant parish priest in the state of New South Wales.
The second victim, an 11-year-old altar boy then, went into the confessional box in 1976 to tell Wilson that Fletcher abused him.
Instead of helping him, Wilson accused the boy of telling lies about a “good man” and ordered him out of the confessional.
Fletcher was found guilty in 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse and he died while serving a jail sentence.
During the hearing, Wilson’s lawyers said he did not remember being approached by the two former altar boys for help.
Wilson, who has Alzheimer’s, told the court his memory has improved after taking medication.
He said he would have remembered the case of the first altar boy since the court said he went into graphic detail about what Fletcher had done to him while presenting his evidence in December last year.
Wilson told the court he would have provided pastoral care to the then-15-year-old boy and his family if the boy had told him about the abuse. He said he would also have reported the matter to his superiors.
Newcastle magistrate Robert Stone did not accept the arguments and ruled that the offence is proven.
Expressing disappointment over the ruling, Wilson said it is appropriate that in the light of some of Stone’s findings, he steps aside from his duties as archbishop.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference stood by Wilson saying he had maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
His lawyers had made four attempts to get the trial cancelled on the ground that Wilson is being treated for Alzheimer’s.
The Australian media described Wilson as the most senior Catholic in the world to be convicted on such a charge.
An inquiry launched by the Australian government five years ago into child sex abuse in churches and other institutions showed that 7% of Catholic priests working in the continent between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes.
The investigators had interviewed hundreds of abuse victims and their families and people running the institutions where the abuses took place. They found that more than 1,000 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.
Last week, 34 Chilean bishops announced their resignation over a child sex abuse scandal. Several church heads are accused by victims of covering up abuse by paedophile priest Fernando Karadima between 1980s and 1990s.
Catholic churches throughout the world are being accused of covering up cases of child sex abuse and protecting the priests involved by moving them from parish to parish.