Archbishop Wilson: Fair cop or foul?

Archbishop Wilson

Archbishop Philip Wilson has gone from church leader with a reputation for dealing professionally with sex abuse cases to being stoned by all and sundry in the national village square.

The calls to resign come not only from victims, anti-church crusaders and commentators of every ilk, but also eminent Catholics who fear he may cause more damage by staying on.

I do not wish to debate the rights or wrongs of resignation but simply reflect on whether the pursuit of Wilson could in any sense be described as a witch-hunt and whether he might be seen as a scapegoat for the sins of many.

First, I do not know Wilson and have interviewed him just once.

I am not a Catholic or a church-goer.

I abhor sexual abuse and its concealment.

I do know a bit about churches (one brother is an Anglican bishop, the other a dean, in England).

As a journalist I have covered legal cases and watched expert lawyers in action in all courts.

I have witnessed merciless interrogations of murderers and conmen, of premiers (Brian Burke and Carmen Lawrence) and businessmen (Alan Bond).

Alarm bells about the Wilson story rang for me eight years ago.

In May 2010, the ABC broadcast a report nationally which claimed that abusive priest James Fletcher had regularly taken a 12-year-old boy up to his room at the Bishop’s House in Maitland, New South Wales, in the 1970s.

The report suggested that as Wilson lived in the same house he must have seen the boy going upstairs.

I was an ABC journalist based in Adelaide and was intrigued partly because the protagonist’s story was so shocking and also because the report contained only brief responses on the Archbishop’s behalf and he appeared nowhere on camera.

Having previously worked on detailed church investigations (including into an Anglican archbishop) I knew it was important to get an on-camera response to such a serious accusation.

I was aware The Australian was also asking for an interview.

To my surprise I was told by the Archbishop’s local media manager that the ABC had sent a series of questions to Wilson but only on the morning of the broadcast and it had been impossible at such short notice to answer in detail questions about the 1970s.

They felt it had been an ‘ambush’ by the ABC, told me an interview was unlikely, but the request would be passed on.

I then breached normal ABC protocol on someone else’s story and did a bit of checking myself.

A look online revealed the complainant was born in 1960 and so would have been 12 in 1972.

Wilson was born in 1950 and ordained in 1975.

So when it was suggested the 12-year-old could have been seen climbing to Fletcher’s bedroom, Wilson was still three years from becoming a priest.

This was a serious mistake in a story the ABC’s then managing director had said earlier had taken months to research. (The story was later corrected online.)

I was disturbed that the report had gone to air with such basic errors and that Wilson had been sent questions only on the morning of the broadcast.

The complainant’s number was online so after work I rang him and we had a friendly conversation.

He told me he had never claimed he’d been 12 at the time he’d seen Wilson at the house.

My decision not to talk immediately to Sydney and to contact the complainant was to cause me grief later in the week when out of the blue the Archbishop’s media manager told me I could interview Wilson (he was also going to talk to The Australian).

I grabbed a camera and headed for the Archbishop’s House.

He was polite and gracious and said I could ask him anything.

His manner was quiet and thoughtful. I have kept a transcript of the interview. Continue reading


  • Alan Atkinson (pictured) has been freelance writing and editing full-time since leaving the ABC in 2015 after ten years as chief of staff, producer and day editor of the Adelaide newsroom.
  • Image: PRWeb
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