CANBERRA, Australia – The most senior Roman Catholic cleric to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court Tuesday in a landmark case welcomed by some abuse survivors as a strong warning to institutions that fail to protect children.
Newcastle Magistrate Robert Stone ordered Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson to serve at least 6 months before he is eligible for parole.
But Wilson will not immediately go into custody. Stone will consider on Aug. 14 whether Wilson is suitable for home detention. He could live with his sister near Newcastle.
Stone in May found the 67-year-old cleric guilty in the Newcastle Local Court of failing to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys by pedophile priest James Fletcher in the Hunter Valley region north of Sydney during the 1970s. Wilson faced a potential maximum sentence of two years in prison.
Stone said Wilson failed to act against Fletcher because he “wanted to protect the church and its image.”
“The whole of the community is devastated in so many ways by the decades of abuse and its concealment,” the magistrate said. “We are all the poorer for what has occurred.”
The sentencing was another step toward holding the church to account for a global abuse crisis that has also engulfed Pope Francis’ financial minister, Australian Cardinal George Pell. Some lawyers said they expect many more clerics to be charged in Australia as a result of Wilson’s test case.
Survivors of abuse who protested against the church outside the court on Tuesday called on Wilson to resign as archbishop. They carried signs accusing the church of hypocrisy and describing it as a “fraudulent cult.”
One of Fletcher’s victims, Peter Gogarty, an advocate for fellow survivors, said he was disappointed that Wilson had walked free from court, but “there is no doubt the archbishop has received a significant sentence.”
Survivors remained pleased by the landmark conviction, he said.
“We have made history here in Australia: The highest-ranked church official to ever be brought to account for what we know was a worldwide systematic abuse of children and the concealment of that abuse,” Gogarty told reporters. “So I’m content that we’ve done something in Australia that nobody else has been able to manage.”
Another victim, Daniel Feenan, said he would not have been abused by Fletcher as a 12-year-old in 1988 if Wilson had spoken out about the allegations he heard in 1976.
“I do feel I’ve got justice,” Feenan said after the sentencing. “It’s an absolutely strong message today.”
Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright said Wilson as a bishop had taken vigorous action against child abusers. As bishop of Wollongong, Wilson had rejected a Vatican ruling that a suspected pedophile priest should return to duty. As Adelaide archbishop, he helped police extradite a lay church employee from the United States.
“It is a deep shock and disappointment that this man has been found guilty of covering up abuse,” Wright said in a statement.
“Archbishop Wilson is a longtime friend and colleague of mine, and almost like a member of my family. But in these matters, all of us must rigorously set aside such considerations in the interests of justice and the protection of children,” Wright added.
Prosecutors last month told the magistrate Wilson must be jailed to send a message that such institutional cover-ups will no longer be tolerated.
Defense lawyers argued that Wilson had several chronic illnesses and might not survive a prison sentence.
Australian state governments are ramping up pressure on the church to report child abuse and are legislating to prosecute priests who maintain that revelations of pedophilia made in the confessional cannot be disclosed. Wilson did not use the seal of the confession as an excuse for failing to acting on allegations against Fletcher. Instead, Wilson testified that he did not recall ever hearing allegations against his fellow priest.
Fletcher was arrested on unrelated child abuse charges in 2004 and died in prison of a stroke in 2006 while serving an almost eight-year sentence.
A five-year national inquiry into child abuse recommended in December that priests be prosecuted for failing to report evidence of pedophilia heard in the confessional.
Wilson stepped down as Adelaide archbishop after he was convicted in May. Adelaide is the capital of South Australia state which will bring in laws in October obliging priests to report evidence of abuse heard during a confession. The Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania state are planning similar laws.
But acting Adelaide Archbishop Greg O’Kelly said priests would not obey the law.
“Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional,” O’Kelly said last month.
Pell, who served at the Vatican as one of the pope’s top aides, has become the highest ranking Catholic in the world to be charged in the church’s global abuse scandal.
The 77-year-old faces trial in his home state of Victoria on decades-old child sex abuse allegations. Pell has denied wrongdoing. Details of the allegations haven’t been made public.
Francis has insisted top clerics be held responsible for failing to crack down on pedophile clergy.