The sentencing of Archbishop Wilson

Cardinal Pell

Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson has been sentenced to 12 months’ detention for concealing child sexual abuse.

Magistrate Robert Stone adjourned the matter to 14 August while Wilson’s home detention order is assessed for suitability.

It’s very likely that he will appeal his conviction and sentence.

An appeal may well succeed, but that’s not the end of the matter.

This has been a six-year saga relating to events which occurred more than 40 years ago. The law is complex; and emotions are running high.

When bishop of Wollongong and later Archbishop of Adelaide, Wilson did a lot to improve the Catholic Church’s national response to crimes of child sexual abuse committed by church personnel.

But the present criminal conviction and sentence of imprisonment relates to his time as a young priest in the diocese of Maitland-Newcastle back in 1976.

It was only later when he was Archbishop of Adelaide that some of his earlier behaviour came back to haunt him.

Local residents in Maitland-Newcastle who were sexually abused as children by either Fr McAlinden or Fr Fletcher have been very outspoken against Wilson, regardless of his later behaviour as a bishop nationally committed to cleaning up the mess.

In 1990, the New South Wales parliament had amended the Crimes Act creating a new offence of concealing a serious indictable offence. Section 316(1) provides:

‘If a person has committed a serious indictable offence and another person who knows or believes that the offence has been committed and that he or she has information which might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for it fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the police force or other appropriate authority, that other person is liable to imprisonment for 2 years.’

In 1999, the New South Wales Law Reform Commission reviewed this provision and found it wanting. The majority of commissioners recommended complete repeal of the provision.

They said: ‘The Commission disapproves of substituting a legal duty which is enforced by a criminal sanction for a moral one unless there are overall substantial benefits to society in doing so. No such overall benefits have been demonstrated in relation to s 316(1)’.

A minority of commissioners thought there might be a case for some provision but even they said, ‘It must be accepted that the present provision is seriously flawed; to be brutal about it, it is in several crucial respects virtually meaningless.

In our view, the essential problem is not that the section’s underlying philosophy is mistaken but that it breaches the fundamental rule that the criminal law be unambiguous.’

Basically, the law was making it a criminal offence for anyone not to report to police anything they might know about the criminal behaviour of any other person ‘without reasonable excuse’.

But no one knew what constituted a reasonable excuse, especially when the victim of the crime or their trusted confidantes chose not to go to the police.

For whatever reason, back in July 2012, Wilson refused to cooperate with the NSW police when they were investigating complaints against McAlinden.

Wilson as a young priest and budding canon lawyer had been the notary at a church trial of McAlinden.

Detective Graeme Parker, the head of Strike Force Lantle, told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘It’s a shame because there are questions that really need to be asked of Archbishop Wilson. We made numerous attempts to get him to the table to be interviewed but he’s exercised his right to silence.’

I daresay that if Wilson had cooperated with the police back then, that would have been the end of the matter.

From that time on, victims of abuse thought that Wilson had something to hide. Continue reading

  • Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
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