HUNTER-born Archbishop Philip Wilson has become the most senior Catholic clergyman in the world to be charged with concealing a child sex abuse allegation against another priest on what a paedophile priest victim has described as ‘‘a St Patrick’s Day we’ll never forget’’.
The Adelaide archbishop was charged on Tuesday with one count of concealing a child sex allegation made against Hunter priest the late Jim Fletcher in the 1970s, nearly nine months after the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry recommended the charge.
He is one of only a handful of Catholic clergymen in the world to be charged with concealing a child sex allegation against another priest, and only the third in Australia after former school principal and fellow Maitland-Newcastle vicar-general the late Tom Brennan became the first to face such a charge in 2012.
American Bishop Robert Finn was convicted in 2012 of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse, but no other Catholic archbishop in the world has faced a charge of concealing a child sex allegation.
Archbishop Wilson, the vice-president of the Australian Bishops Conference who was born in Cessnock in 1950 and attended St Patrick’s Primary School at Cessnock, denied the allegation in a statement on Tuesday, and said he would vigorously defend the matter.
“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.”
The archbishop has taken indefinite leave while he defends the matter.
He studied for the priesthood at St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly and was ordained a Maitland diocese priest in 1975 and appointed assistant priest at East Maitland.
In 1977-78 he attended religious education in New York, before returning to the Hunter and becoming Bishop Leo Clarke’s secretary in 1980, Maitland parish priest in 1983, and vicar-general in 1987. He was named Bishop of Wollongong in 1996 and Archbishop of Adelaide in 2001.
News of the charge against him meant tears for some Hunter child sex abuse victims and survivors, and relief that police from Newcastle strike force Lantle had finally been able to lay a charge after concerns about the length of time commissioner Margaret Cunneen’s recommendation had been with the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
‘‘I’m stunned. When I first heard about it, I cried and cried,’’ said Fletcher victim and long-time advocate for victims Peter Gogarty.
‘‘This is an important step in the process of identifying who did know what was going on with these priests, and it’s significant for anyone who has ever been sexually abused as a child, whether in the Catholic Church or other institution, or for that matter in their own home by a family member.
‘‘What this [charge] says is that no one’s above the law.’’
Mr Gogarty said he did not believe a senior Catholic clergyman would ever be charged with concealing a child sex allegation because ‘‘it was like a hill too high’’.
‘‘But having said that, this is an absolute tribute to everyone involved, and proof that our system of justice works.’’
Another Fletcher victim, Daniel Feenan, whose allegations about the priest to Hunter detective Peter Fox in 2003 led to Fletcher’s conviction and jailing until his death in 2006, said he was pleased and relieved.
‘‘I wanted it [the charge against Archbishop Wilson] to happen, but I was concerned that through the process no one had the balls to actually do it,’’ Mr Feenan said.
‘‘The church didn’t think people like me would still hang on after all this time and expect people to be held to account, but we did, and this is a significant day.’’
A Newcastle woman, 61, who was a victim of notorious Hunter paedophile priest Denis McAlinden, and whose documents led to the establishment of strike force Lantle, said she felt good on behalf of all children who had ever been sexually abused, and hoped it would give hope to children suffering child sexual abuse today.
‘‘I didn’t just do this for me. I did it for everyone who’s felt powerless against someone more powerful. It’s been a really long, hard journey but it’s been worth it,’’ the woman said.
‘‘I didn’t know what to say when the police rang to tell me he had been charged.
‘‘I was in shock. I couldn’t answer for a second. I had to get them to repeat it about 10 times. This is a St Patrick’s Day we’ll never forget.
‘‘The Catholic Church has made out that we survivors were the bad people, but we weren’t. We were children. I’m absolutely disgusted with the Church, and I’m glad people are being held to account.’’
Hunter man Bob O’Toole, who played a pivotal role in the Newcastle Herald’s campaign in 2012 for a royal commission, said he was almost speechless after hearing the news, but it was a significant event for many people in the Hunter who had supported victims of child sexual abuse.
‘‘There’s been a great deal of emotional trauma and sadness but this is historic.’’
‘‘It’s St Patrick’s Day. It’s a great day,’’ Mr O’Toole said.
Bishop Bill Wright, of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, acknowledged the charge and said the diocese continued to support strike force Lantle in its efforts to address the historical legacy of child sexual abuse in its region.
‘‘The co-operation of the diocese with police investigations was the subject of favourable evidence before the Cunneen Special Commission of Inquiry,’’ he said.
‘‘As a diocese, we have established reporting policies that require any member of the diocese to report allegations of criminal conduct against children.
‘‘As a diocese we continue to show our commitment to protecting children each day.
‘‘We recognise that the history of child sexual abuse in the diocese is distressing,’’ he said.
‘‘Zimmerman Services has a dedicated team of experienced professionals committed to providing healing and support to those who have experienced harm. Zimmerman Services may be contacted on 49791390, Monday to Friday from 9am-5pm.’’
Archbishop Wilson is due to appear in Newcastle Local Court on April 30.