ADELAIDE, South Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Pope has accepted the resignation of Abp. Philip Wilson, the highest-ranking Catholic prelate in the world to be criminally convicted for covering up priest sex abuse.
Earlier this year, Wilson was found guilty in an Australian court of failing to report two individuals' complaints of sex abuse by a priest.
Pope Francis accepted the archbishop's resignation, the Vatican announced Monday. This follows months of widespread calls in Australian media for Abp. Wilson to step down, or for Pope Francis to sack him.
In the 1970s, when Wilson was a parish priest, he served alongside a priest accused of sex abuse, Fr. James Fletcher. Father Fletcher's two alleged victims, both men, claim they were sexually abused by the priest in their pre-teens. They also claim that when they told Wilson at the time, he did nothing about it.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed news of Abp. Wilson's decision to quit, saying it "belatedly recognizes the many calls, including my own, for him to resign."
"There is no more important responsibility for community and Church leaders than the protection of children," the prime minister said in a statement.
Archbishop Wilson has maintained his innocence. He has also argued that he does not remember if the alleged conversations with the young victims even happened, given that about 40 years have passed.
On Aug. 11, a court will rule whether Wilson faces 12 months of prison time or house arrest.
Defense attorneys have claimed the archbishop is in poor health and his condition would worsen in prison.
One of Fr. Fletcher's two alleged victims says he told Wilson about Fr. Fletcher's abuse during confession and that Wilson did not believe him.
The Church strictly forbids priests from disclosing what individuals tell them in the confessional. The Code of Canon Law states, "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason" (983.1).
Canon law also says, "A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded" (984.1).
Archbishop Wilson is the latest among numerous prelates around the world to resign amidst allegations of covering up predatory priests.
In May, all the bishops of Chile offered their resignations to Pope Francis amid a sex abuse scandal. The Holy Father accepted the resignations of a few of the Chilean prelates.
In the United States, Theodore McCarrick resigned from his rank of cardinal on July 28. This came after numerous complaints that McCarrick sexually abused seminarians and underaged males. The Pope ordered McCarrick — now reduced to the status of archbishop emeritus — to spend his life in seclusion and penance.
In a statement Monday night, the archdiocese of Adelaide informed the local faithful of Abp. Wilson's resignation. The media release reads, "Archbishop Wilson said he hoped and prayed that his decision would be a 'catalyst to heal pain and distress' and that it would allow everyone in the archdiocese of Adelaide, and the victims of Fr. Jim Fletcher, to move beyond this very difficult time."
The archdiocese's press release quotes Abp. Wilson as saying, "Though my resignation was not requested, I made this decision because I have become increasingly worried at the growing level of hurt that my recent conviction has caused within the community."
The archbishop also stated in the press release:
I had hoped to defer this decision until after the appeal process had been completed. However, there is just too much pain and distress being caused by my maintaining the office of archbishop of Adelaide, especially to the victims of Fr. Fletcher. I must end this and therefore have decided that my resignation is the only appropriate step to take in the circumstances.
Jesuit Bp. Gregory O'Kelly is temporarily heading the Adelaide archdiocese as apostolic administrator. Bishop O'Kelly will remain apostolic administrator "until the Holy Father appoints a new archbishop of Adelaide," the press release explains.
Bishop O'Kelly says in the press statement, "With the resignation, may there now be a time of healing for all concerned."
He added, "May we not forget the good the Archbishop had done in so many ways while at the same time renewing our resolve to care for those who have been hurt by personnel of the Church."