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Published: 28 May 2018
Author: Kate Malone

Archbishop Wilson jailed for cover up: what are the implications?

Last week saw a landmark decision from the Newcastle Local Court to convict a Catholic priest of concealing child sexual abuse. The current Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Phillip Wilson, was found guilty of failing to report his knowledge about a Catholic priest, Jim Fletcher, who sexually abused a boy in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s. Archbishop Wilson was the assistant parish priest in East Maitland, New South Wales, during the relevant time when the boy was abused.

The New South Wales decision holds great interest for many around the country, including in Victoria, where we have heard, through the evidence obtained during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, of the cover up of child sexual abuse by prominent Catholic priests/bishops.

History of cover ups in Victoria

One of the most notable examples seen in Victoria was the cover up that occurred in the Diocese of Ballarat, during a time when notorious paedophile priests, including Gerald Ridsdale and Edward Dowlan, were running rampant. The blame for this cover up has been found to lie predominantly with the Bishop of Ballarat at the time, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns.

The Royal Commission found that there was “no doubt” that at various times Bishop Mulkearns “knew or strongly suspected that these priests had sexually abused children in the diocese.”

Further, the Royal Commission found that Bishop Mulkearns’ response was overwhelmingly to protect the reputation of the Church and ignore or minimise the complaint of the child and the child’s parents. The Royal Commission heard evidence that the extensive cover up involved Bishop Mulkearns moving offending priests from parish to parish and providing untrue or misleading reasons as to why the priest was being relocated.

Evidence was also heard that during meetings of senior Catholics, code words were used to describe offending by a priest, and in some cases there was evidence that records relating to allegations of child sexual abuse were blatantly destroyed.

Bishop Mulkearns died mid-way through the Royal Commission in 2016. He was not charged with offences for concealing child sexual abuse. However, the finding of the Newcastle Local Court against then assistant parish priest, Phillip Wilson, opens up the possibility for further findings of guilt across the country against Catholic clergy who, like Bishop Mulkearns, were instrumental in the cover up of these crimes against vulnerable children.

Covering up sexual abuse only illegal in NSW and Victoria

New South Wales and Victoria are currently the only States to have criminal offences for cover ups of child sexual abuse.

In Victoria, the Crimes Act dictates that an adult who forms a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed against a child by another adult must disclose that information to police, unless they have a reasonable excuse for not doing so. However, the Royal Commission made recommendations that the obligation to disclose known or suspected child sexual abuse be made more stringent.

The Royal Commission recommended that such an offence should apply to any adult who “owns or manages or who is a staff member or volunteer” of a relevant institution, including institutions that “operate facilities or provide services to children in circumstances where the children are in the care, supervision or control of the institution.”

It is hoped that the case against Archbishop Wilson will put the wheels in motion for further change in Victoria, and across the country, so that adults in relevant situations will be clear on their obligation to report and the punishment for failure to do so.

Archbishop Wilson is due to be sentenced on 19 June 2018. Disappointingly, the harshest sentence he will be able to receive is two years in prison, which many will consider too light given his actions, and the actions of senior Catholics involved in similar cover ups, actively led to the continuation of abuse on many children whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the sexual offending they experienced.