An innocent bishop acquitted. Did anyone notice?

Archbishop Philip Wilson  after being found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse. AAP/Peter Lorimer

On May 22 the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, was found guilty of failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse. He was the most senior Catholic cleric found guilty of concealing abuse and the news was reported around the world.

On July 3, Archbishop Wilson was sentenced to 12 months' detention, with parole after six months. This eventually became home detention, which he began serving on August 14. This, too, was reported around the world. 

Following the conviction in Newcastle Local Court before Magistrate Robert Stone, there were calls for the Archbishop to resign. Even then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, stuck his oar in. "The time has come for the Pope to sack him," he said. "There are many leaders that have called on him to resign, it is clear that he should resign."

Powerful stuff from powerful people. Although Wilson wanted to stay on officially as Archbishop until his appeal had been heard, he yielded to the pressure and resigned. Pope Francis accepted it on July 30. The historic resignation was reported as far afield as the New York Times.

And then ... acquittal 

What the New York Times failed to report – along with most of the world media – is that the Archbishop was acquitted on December 6. Judge Roy Ellis, of Newcastle District Court, said that suspicion was not a substitute for proof.

This graph from Google Trends tells the story of how an innocent man’s reputation was blackened forever. Trends tracks media coverage of selected topics. The first big spike at the left in a graph tracking US media coverage of “Archbishop Philip Wilson” relates to his conviction. The second, in the centre, relates to his sentence. Look to the right. A little blip last week. Media coverage of the Archbishop’s exoneration is as scarce as apologies from Malcolm Turnbull.    

The Australian media, of course, did take some notice of his successful appeal. But according to Trends, the coverage was only 26 percent of the articles relating to his conviction. There was far more interest in his guilt than in his innocence. Since most people rely on headlines and Facebook feeds to keep themselves informed, they probably thought that the Archbishop had been convicted of fiddling with little boys. They probably still do.

In fact, he was charged with not disclosing the actions of an abusive priest which allegedly came to his attention in 1976, 42 years ago, long before he became a bishop.

The wonder of this case is that he was ever charged, let alone convicted. Archbishop Wilson became a scapegoat for the public’s understandable outrage over sexual abuse by priests.

In 1976 Father Wilson, as he was then, was allegedly approached separately by two altar boys who told him that they had been molested by Fr James Fletcher. The conviction was based on the testimony of one of these boys, Peter Creigh.

Fletcher was unquestionably a bad ‘un. He was convicted of historic child abuse in 2004 and died in jail of a stroke in 2006.

There was no question of whether Wilson himself was responsible for abuse. It was whether he had failed to report Fletcher when the abuser was charged in 2004. The prosecution had to demonstrate first, that Mr Creigh had told Father Wilson about the abuse in 1976, and second, that Father Wilson believed the allegation.

Ultimately, the case rested on Archbishop Wilson’s credibility. The magistrate found that Mr Creigh was truthful and that Wilson wasn’t. In sentencing him he said that Wilson’s motivation for failing to tell police in 2004 about Fletcher’s offences in the 1970s was to protect the church and that he had shown no remorse or contrition.

But if it is hard to show remorse for a crime that you did not do, it is even harder if you can’t remember it. Wilson also has incipient Alzheimer’s disease, which probably makes recollection of incidents 42 years ago even more difficult. Judge Ellis found that Wilson had been a "very honest and forthright" witness.

There is no doubt that some priests have committed terrible crimes by abusing children. They should be brought to justice and punished. If their superiors colluded in these crimes by covering up, they should be brought to justice as well. But scapegoating innocent individuals is not justice.

In his judgement Judge Ellis declared that Archbishop Wilson should not be convicted on the "direction of public opinion" or on the sins of the Catholic Church as an institution, but rather the rule of law.

"In practice, complying with the legal principles may well result in a verdict that is perhaps inconsistent with media or community expectations, given more recent trends in public and media opinion.

"But if the verdict is a true representation of justice … then it is community or media expectations that must be dashed, not the hopes of an individual that he or she will receive a fair trial."

Archbishop Wilson is an honourable man who had a reputation for dealing effectively with sexual abuse. He was even invited to a US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 to explain how Australian bishops had responded to the abuse crisis. He has been found innocent in a court of law, but he can never polish his tarnished reputation. The media owes him an apology. The former prime minister owes him an apology. Will he get one? Not likely.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  


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