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Archbishop Philip Wilson abuse concealment case the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
The verdict in the case of Archbishop Philip Wilson — the most senior Catholic to be charged with concealing child abuse — is already being declared a “landmark” case, with one legal expert predicting it could trigger a flood of other prosecutions.
Wilson — who became the Archbishop of Adelaide in 2001 — was found guilty of covering up abuse by priest Jim Fletcher in the NSW Hunter region in the 1970s.
Magistrate Robert Stone told the court he did not accept Wilson could not recall a 1976 conversation with the victim.
Prominent defence lawyer and co-chair of the South Australian Law Society’s criminal law committee Craig Caldicott said the verdict was important because of the precedent it set.
He estimated the number of potentially similar cases in Catholic diocese across Australia was in the hundreds.
“There’s a whole series of cases right across Australia where the Roman Catholic Church and indeed other churches have not reported offences,” Mr Caldicott told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“I suspect that this is now going to be the tip of the iceberg.
“Other senior people are going to be facing charges such as have been before the court in the case of Archbishop Wilson.”
Fletcher was convicted of child sex offences in 2004 and died in jail in 2006.
But Magistrate Stone said if Wilson had told police what he knew it would have helped in the prosecution against Fletcher.
Mr Caldicott said the case put the legal spotlight on Catholic doctrines such as the seal of confession and pontifical secrecy.
“Teachers and doctors — if they are aware of sexual abuse they have got mandatory reporting, but the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t,” he said.
‘Landmark decision’ could go to High Court
South Australian victims’ commissioner Michael O’Connell said the verdict would bring a sense of justice, and was inspirational “in several ways”.
“First and foremost a courageous victim was prepared to go through the ordeal that played out in the courtroom,” he told the ABC.
“With that courage comes the inspiration to other victims.”
He said the case also highlighted the obligation on priests to alert police to sex abuse cases.
“Everyone has a responsibility when such serious crime is made known to them to take concrete steps,” he said.
He called on Wilson to stand down from his position, at least until the conclusion of the case.
“In my view, at the very least he should stand aside until this matter is finally resolved,” he said.
“The church is bigger and more important than individuals.”
In a statement, Archbishop Wilson said he was disappointed at the decision.
He said he would consider the reasons for the verdict and consult closely with his lawyers to determine his next steps.
Mr Caldicott said he believed an appeal was likely.
“I would imagine it would go to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, and possibly even higher, to the High Court, because it is such a landmark decision,” he said.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, released a statement in response to the verdict on Tuesday and said it was not clear if Wilson would appeal.
“Archbishop Philip Wilson has been found guilty of failing to inform police about allegations of child sexual abuse,” he said.
“Archbishop Wilson maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process.
“The Catholic Church, like other institutions, has learned a great deal about the tragedy of child sexual abuse and has implemented stronger programs, policies and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults.