NEWCASTLE, New South Wales (ChurchMilitant.com) - A former archbishop will likely be released from home detention after a judge overturned his conviction for allegedly failing to report sex abuse.
Philip Wilson, who resigned as archbishop of Adelaide in July, had been found guilty in May of failing to tell authorities about a sexually abusive priest in the late 1970s. Wilson was later sentenced to home detention rather than prison time, owing to his old age and declining health. Archbishop Wilson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2017.
But in a surprising move, an Australian judge overturned Wilson's conviction on Thursday following an appeal.
The judge, New South Wales District Court Judge Roy Ellis, ruled that there are reasonable doubts as to whether Wilson was actually guilty. Ellis said, "There were very honest features of his evidence to provide a strong platform for him to be an honest witness."
After Ellis announced that he was overturning Wilson's conviction, an onlooker in the court shouted, "Bull s***! That's a disgrace!"
Wilson has already served about four months of the one-year sentence. Staying at his sister's home with an electronic tracking device, he watched Ellis hand down the courtroom decision via video link.
As a priest in the 1970s, Wilson was stationed at the same parish as convicted sex abuser Fr. James Fletcher, who died in 2006 while in prison for the sexual abuse of minors. Two male victims of Fletcher, who were altar boys at the time, claim that Wilson ignored their complaints to him about Fr. Fletcher's abuse.
During their appeal of Wilson's sentencing, the defense team tried to make the case that forcing minors into sex acts did not technically constitute indecent assault in the 1970s, due to how laws at the time were written. But the judge was quick to dismiss this argument.
At least one of the alleged victims claims that he spoke with Wilson during confession about Fr. Fletcher's abuse but Wilson dismissed the possibility that his fellow priest would do something so heinous.
The trial of Abp. Wilson was highlighted in international news because he is the highest-ranking Catholic leader in Australia to face criminal charges of covering up sex abuse.
Magistrate Robert Stone was the one who sentenced Wilson earlier this year. At that sentencing, Stone accused Wilson of not showing any remorse and protecting the Church's reputation above all else.
Before Wilson was brought to trial on charges of covering up sex abuse, he was known as "the healing bishop" due to work he did on the sex abuse crisis as head of the diocese of Wollongong.
The archdiocese of Adelaide issued a fairly neutral statement regarding the news that Wilson's conviction was overturned. The statement said in part, "We note the outcome of the judgment handed down today by Judge Roy Ellis in the Newcastle District Court and welcome the conclusion of a process that has been long and painful for all concerned."
"We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome," the statement added.
There are questions swirling now about whether Wilson will be reinstated as archbishop of Adelaide. But some say it is unlikely for him to be put back in power after Pope Francis already accepted his resignation, given the controversy surrounding him and his declining health.