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Archbishop conveniently diagnosed of dementia on eve of child rape trial.
The Archbishop of Adelaide, 67, was due to face Newcastle Local Court yesterday on a charge he concealed sex abuse within the Catholic Church over the past four decades. But the Archbishop, a former local junior priest, failed to travel to NSW for the opening day of his trial as details of his failing health were publicly disclosed.
The court heard he was last week diagnosed with early stages of dementia after sustaining head injuries from a “nasty” fall on October 11 that left him unconscious and needing hospital treatment.
His lawyers also revealed he had a pacemaker installed last week – meaning he could not fly for at least seven days – after concerns about his ailing health and worries about his “cognitive capacities”.
He also suffers from diabetes.
READ PHILIP WILSON’S LETTER TO THE ARCHDIOCESE OF ADELAIDE
The disclosures have shocked senior Catholic officials, leading to an announcement to the wider church community yesterday as his health problems were aired in court.
In a “letter of importance”, obtained by The Advertiser, the Archbishop writes how such an Alzheimer’s diagnosis “will alarm many people” but he hopes to prove people wrong and that he can function.
Medication is helping, which the court heard offers a third of a chance of restoring the brain to full capacity within six months.
It is understood he is not considering resigning despite his poor health and which the court heard could limit his understanding of complex legal arguments.
But he writes that “if a point comes” in the next eight years before his mandatory retirement on medical advice that his functions are impaired, he will “offer my resignation to the Holy Father”.
Archbishop Wilson, the highest-ranking Catholic Church official in the world to be charged with such crimes more than 2 ½ years ago, has taken personal leave while he “vigorously” defends the case. He had returned from leave last year.
Yesterday’s disclosures have cast doubt over his trial as his legal team faces a race against the clock to secure further medical testing ahead of a hearing on Friday.
The court heard Adelaide neurologist, Associate Professor Andrew Lee, could not rule out the Archbishop was “malingering” when he failed key medical tests, including those given to Year 1 students.
Prosecutor Gareth Harrison said a video posted online a few weeks after his fall proved his mental capacity although he later admitted “questions” were raised about the Archbishop’s “fitness”.
But Magistrate Caleb Franklin ordered the trial be delayed until at least next week.
The court heard several “anxious” victims fear further delays while authorities are concerned about the timing.
Stephen Odgers SC, defending, said his client was “very keen” to participate in the trial as senior Catholic official Monsignor David Cappo watched from the public gallery. The court heard up to 16 prosecution witnesses – including victims, relatives, clergy and police – will be called, while defence lawyers will call at least four.
In a rare prosecution, the Archbishop is accused of concealing sexual abuse by a local paedophile priest in the mid-1970s and then again in the mid-2000s.
He faces a maximum two years in jail if convicted of the charge laid by NSW police Strike Force Lantle, which was formed to investigate sexual abuse allegations.
Prosecutors will allege that while a 25-year-old junior priest in 1976, the Archbishop concealed information about a sex assault of a then 10 year-old boy five years earlier at Maitland, near Newcastle, 165km north of Sydney.
The attacker, James Patrick Fletcher, was his then flatmate in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. Prosecutors allege the Archbishop further failed to inform police when he was reminded of the abuse allegations in 2004.
Fletcher, 65, known as Jim, died in prison while serving a 10-year jail term for abusing an altar boy.
The Archbishop is excused from attending Friday’s hearing.