An Australian court has overturned the conviction of a former archbishop who was the world’s most senior Catholic cleric held guilty of concealing child sexual abuse.
The court on Thursday said the prosecutors had failed to prove their case against Philip Wilson, 68, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wilson was charged with concealing crimes by late paedophile priest Jim Fletcher in the Hunter region of New South Wales in the 1970s.
Wilson was sentenced to 12 months in prison in May, becoming one of the highest-ranked Australian church officials to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse.
“There is no proper basis upon which I can rely to reject the evidence of the appellant,” Judge Roy Ellis said before he handed down the ruling.
The judge noted “inconsistencies” with the accuser’s statements regarding an alleged conversation he had with Wilson about the abuse.
“This court could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the conversation took place at all,” Ellis said.
Wilson resigned as Archbishop of Adelaide in July after then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Vatican to sack him.
Fletcher was found guilty in 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse and died in jail in 2006, following a stroke.
There was no dispute during the initial trial that Fletcher, who died in custody in 2006, sexually abused an altar boy, with the hearing focused on whether Wilson, then a junior priest, knew about it.
‘Disappointed for good people’
The prosecution said Wilson was told by two altar boys in 1976 that they had been abused by Fletcher but did nothing about it.
It was alleged he subsequently failed to go to the police after Fletcher was arrested in 2004 for abusing another boy.
One of the two altar boy victims, Peter Creigh, was in tears after the judge’s decision. He was too upset to comment outside court.
Creigh had previously agreed to be identified in the media as a victim of child sexual abuse.
Another of Fletcher’s victims who was not involved in the charge against Wilson, Peter Gogarty, said the Catholic Church had shown no genuine contrition for the abuse of children by clerics.
“I’m very disappointed as you’d expect. I’m disappointed at a personal level … but more importantly, I’m very disappointed for the other people, good, honest, reliable people,” Gogarty told reporters outside court, referring to witnesses in the trial.
Abuse scandals rock Catholic church
Wilson served as a priest in New South Wales before Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Wollongong in 1996. Five years later he became the Archbishop of Adelaide.
The Vatican is under pressure following a string of sexual abuse accusations against clergy in the Americas, Australia and Europe.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in October made an apology on behalf of his country for failing to protect thousands of survivors of institutional child abuse.
He was responding to a five-year royal commission, ordered by the Australian government after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations across the country.
The commission was contacted by more than 15,000 survivors who detailed harrowing allegations of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools, often dating back decades.
Australian Catholic Church leaders vowed in October that the church’s “shameful” history of child abuse and cover-ups would never be again be repeated.
Pope Francis has called for a summit in February on prevention of sex abuse with Catholic Church leaders from around the world.