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Former archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction for concealing child sexual abuse quashed

Related Story: Forcing child into a sex act wasn't indecent assault in the '70s, archbishop's lawyers argue Related Story: Archbishop sentenced to 12 months' detention for child abuse cover-up

Former Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson is set to walk free after his conviction for concealing child sexual abuse was quashed by a judge.

Key points:

  • The judge said there were doubts Philip Wilson had been told about the abuse
  • After the verdict was announced an abuse survivor yelled out: 'Bullshit, this is a disgrace'
  • Wilson was the most senior Catholic to be charged with concealing child sexual abuse

The judge said Father Wilson was an honest and consistent witness and he had reasonable doubts that he had been told about the abuse.

Father Wilson was excused from attending court today in order to avoid a "media scrum" but did appear via video link.

The 68-year-old was the highest-ranking Catholic in the world to be convicted of concealing child sexual abuse and had been serving a minimum sentence of six months in home detention.

Newcastle Local Court convicted Father Wilson in May of concealing abuse committed by paedophile priest Jim Fletcher in the Hunter Valley dating back to the 1970s.

It found that in 1976 victim Peter Creigh confided in Father Wilson that he had been sexually abused, yet Father Wilson failed to report it to police when Fletcher was charged with other child sex offences in 2004.

Peter Creigh

Before overturning Father Wilson's conviction, Judge Roy Ellis said the former archbishop was honest and consistent.

"There were very honest features of his evidence to provide a strong platform for him to be an honest witness," he said.

"[He] did not attempt to blacken the name of Peter Creigh and allege he was a liar.

"He was clearly an intelligent and articulate witness.

"There is no proper basis on which I can rely to reject the evidence of [Father Wilson]."

Judge Ellis said the crown failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, and upheld the appeal, ordering that the clergyman be released.

At that point a Catholic clerical abuse survivor stood up in the courtroom gallery and shouted: "Bullshit, that is a disgrace".

The crown has indicated it will appeal the decision.

Accuser's evidence 'inconsistent'

In his judgment, Judge Ellis highlighted what he called inconsistencies in a Mr Creigh's evidence.

He also questioned Mr Creigh's memory in relation to the timing of his alleged conversation with Father Wilson, when he claimed he raised the alarm about Fletcher's abuse.

He also said there were inconsistencies in relation to the length of the conversation and frequency of the abuse.

"Was the duration of the abuse, six or nine months?" the judge asked.

Judge Ellis said the media interest in the case had been intense.

"This is not a criticism of media, but intended or not, the mere presence of large amounts of media from all around Australia and the world carries with it a certain amount of pressure on the court," judge Ellis said.

In a statement, the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide said it welcomed the conclusion of "a process that has been long and painful for all concerned".

"We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome."

Victims 'no match for legal system'

Outside court, Mr Creigh told waiting media he was "not up to talking".

Patricia Feenan, whose son Daniel was abused by Jim Fletcher, said she felt for Mr Creigh.

"I've given him a hug. He's a brave man, Daniel's a brave man and they're no match for the legal system, the appeals," she said.

"It's very disappointing, very upsetting. Why am I not surprised?"

A woman with grey hair

She said today was the 14th anniversary since Fletcher was found guilty of abusing her son.

"It is significant, and here we are still here," she said.

She said she hoped Father Wilson would never be reinstated as archbishop.

"I hope the public of Australia have an opinion on that," she said.

"He didn't support us in any way at all, so I don't think anyone should support him."

Steven Smith, a survivor of sexual abuse in the Anglican church, said victims continued to be "smacked down" by the legal system.

"All we've seen today is if you throw enough money at something, which the Catholic Church has done here, you'll eventually find a judge that will see things your way," he said.

"We've got the police who encourage us to come forward and speak up and we've got the judges who slap us back down again.

"Seriously, why would you bother?"

Survivors 'not going anywhere'

A man with a beard

Peter Gogarty, who was abused by Fletcher, said he was extremely disappointed by the decision and that Father Wilson had not fronted up to court.

"I wonder whether … it's the exquisite discomfort that might arise for him out of looking his accusers in the eye and looking in the eyes of the people who James Patrick Fletcher abused," Mr Gogarty said.

"If the Catholic Church thinks that people like me and lots of other survivors of child abuse are going to be set back by this, then we've got news for them, because I'm not going anywhere.

"The Catholic Church has still not shown any contrition for what they've done."

Mr Gogarty said he was disappointed by the outcome personally "and [for] those people [who] have stood up to the might and the money of the Catholic Church".

"They've been deeply hurt by this decision, so I feel terrible for them."

He said Father Wilson should "absolutely not" be reinstated as archbishop and called on him to answer publicly "who knew what and when did they know it".

"Because I've got the courage of my convictions — where are you Bishop Wilson?"

Bob O'Toole, from the Clergy Abuse Network, said thought the court decision would now make it difficult for charges to be brought against those accused of concealing chid sex abuse.

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