Former Catholic Bishop of Wollongong, Philip Wilson. FILE PICTUREThe former Catholic bishop of Wollongong, now Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, has been charged over the alleged cover-up of child sex abuse in the Hunter region.
The charge relates to the 64-year-old’s alleged concealment of child sex abuse carried out by priest James Fletcher during the 1970s, when both men were working in the Maitland diocese.
Fletcher died in 2006, a year after he was jailed for at least 7 years following his conviction on nine sexual abuse charges relating to a 13-year-old boy between 1989 and 1991.
A special commission of inquiry into the alleged cover-up of child sexual abuse by the church in the Hunter found Fletcher had an ‘‘extensive history of sexually abusing children in the diocese, exclusively abusing young males and particularly altar boys.
‘‘His offending history dates back at least to the 1970s,’’ the inquiry found.
Archbishop Wilson was charged with concealing a serious offence by NSW Police on Tuesday and is thought to be the most senior Catholic official in the world to face charges of this nature. If sentenced, he could reportedly face up to two years behind bars.
He said in a statement that he was disappointed by the charges and intended to ‘‘vigorously defend my innocence’’.
‘‘The suggestion appears to be that I failed to bring to the attention of police a conversation I am alleged to have had in 1976, when I was a junior priest, that a now deceased priest had abused a child,’’ he said.
‘‘From the time this was first brought to my attention last year, I have completely denied the allegation.’’
Archbishop Wilson served as Wollongong’s bishop from 1996 to 2000.
In June last year, he gave extensive testimony at a royal commission hearing into the Wollongong Catholic diocese’s response to child sexual abuse complaints made against Father John Nestor.
Nestor was convicted of aggravated indecent assault in 1997 but acquitted on appeal seven months later.
However the commission heard other complaints had emerged – including that Nestor had watched boys showering, made boys bathe naked, conducted bodily ‘‘soap inspections’’ and touched a boy ‘‘on the penis and the bum’’ – leading then Bishop Wilson to fight to have him removed from the ministry.
The Archbishop told the commission he felt so strongly the priest should not be allowed to practise that he was willing to ‘‘take the matter all the way to the Pope’’ and resign if necessary.
He also criticised the Congregation for the Clergy (CFC) – one of the Vatican’s most powerful bodies – for always taking the side of priests accused of abuse.
On Tuesday, Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham issued a statement saying he was ‘‘deeply saddened’’ to learn Archbishop Wilson had been charged.
‘‘Acknowledging that due respect must be accorded to the criminal justice system and the matter properly dealt with before the court, it is inappropriate at this time to make any further comment in relation to the case,’’ he said.
Archbishop Wilson is due to appear in Newcastle Local Court on April 30.
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