FORMER Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction for failing to report child sex allegations about Hunter priest Jim Fletcher to police has been overturned after a judge rejected substantial elements of the case against the archbishop, and questioned the accuracy of a key witness’s evidence.
Archbishop Wilson remained impassive as Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis quashed the conviction on Thursday after finding the Catholic cleric gave “very honest and forthright” evidence and was an “intelligent and reasonably articulate witness”.
The archbishop watched the decision via an audio-video link from his sister’s Central Coast home after he chose to start a 12 month jail sentence in August, served as six months’ home detention, despite lodging an immediate appeal against his conviction.
Judge Ellis found the Crown had not proven the case against the archbishop beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge told the court Archbishop Wilson could not be convicted of a crime because the “Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of its historical self-protective approach” to children alleging child sexual abuse by priests.
“Philip Wilson when he appears before this court is simply an individual who has the same legal rights as every other person in our community,” Judge Ellis said.
“It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.”
Judge Ellis also questioned the influence of a large media presence in high profile court cases.
He acknowledged the role of the media in making public the “morally reprehensible” actions of churches and other institutions, but said “large numbers of members of media from all around Australia” was “the elephant in the room” in some cases.
“This may amount to perceived pressure for a court to reach a conclusion which seems to be consistent with the direction of public opinion, rather than being consistent with the rule of law that requires a court to hand down individual justice in its decision-making processes,” the judge said.
“The potential for media pressure to impact judicial independence may be subtle or indeed subversive in the sense that it is the elephant in the room that no one sees or acknowledges or wants to see or acknowledge.”
Archbishop Wilson was the most senior Catholic clergyman in the world to be charged with a conceal offence in March, 2015, and the most senior to be convicted in a landmark decision in May. The conviction prompted public outcry which led to the archbishop resigning as head of Adelaide archdiocese.
Judge Ellis on Thursday upheld the archbishop’s appeal against the conviction after accepting his evidence that he had no memory in 2004 of a teenage Peter Creigh telling him in 1976 that he had been indecently assaulted by Hunter priest Jim Fletcher.
Newcastle magistrate Robert Stone convicted Archbishop Wilson after rejecting the cleric’s “flawed” reasoning that he had not formed a belief that allegations about Fletcher were true. The Crown case relied on the archbishop’s belief of the allegations to enliven a responsibility to report them to police in 2004 after they charged Fletcher with offences against Daniel Feenan in the 1990s.
Mr Stone convicted the archbishop after accepting the evidence of people, including other victims of Fletcher, who alleged they told Archbishop Wilson about Fletcher’s offending.
But on Thursday Judge Ellis said he “reached a different conclusion than magistrate Stone” after a “careful read and re-read” of the transcript of evidence.
Judge Ellis found Mr Creigh was “an honest witness doing his best to recall events in 1976”, but he was not satisfied of the accuracy of some of Mr Creigh’s recollections of an alleged conversation with Archbishop Wilson about being sexually abused by Fletcher.
“In my view acceptance of Mr Peter Creigh as an honest witness does not automatically mean I would be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he complained to Philip Wilson in 1976 that James Fletcher had indecently assaulted him,” he said.
Judge Ellis accepted the evidence of a memory expert about the possibility of false memories to be formed by “entirely honest individuals who then present those memories confidently”.
“It is not inconceivable that in looking back Mr Creigh convinced himself that he had complained rather than asking himself why he didn’t complain, which might especially be so if he had wanted to complain but never actually did,” Judge Ellis said.
He said Mr Creigh made “no complaint to anyone until he told his family 33 years later in 2009” and “made no notes of the conversation with Philip Wilson either at the time or shortly after the alleged conversation, nor at any time during the ensuing 39 years”.
Judge Ellis said the archbishop’s failure to criticise or “attempt to blacken” Mr Creigh’s name by “alleging he was a liar” was an indication of the archbishop’s “overall honesty”.
The archbishop’s failure to say he disbelieved Mr Creigh meant he denied himself a defence of the charge which “would have been just about impossible to realistically challenge”, Judge Ellis said.
“The fact that he did not avail himself of a potential ‘disbelief’ escape clause is once again supportive of his honesty as a witness.”
Mr Creigh sobbed in court after the decision was overturned and later hugged a second Fletcher victim who gave evidence against the archbishop.
Pat Feenan, the mother of another of Fletcher’s victims, was also in tears outside the court when she said she did not want to see Philip Wilson reinstated as the bishop of Adelaide.
She said she was not surprised that the archbishop did not appear in court but “he should have”.
“I’m feeling upset. I’m not surprised. I thought it was going to go that way,” Mrs Feenan said.
She became emotional when she told the media Archbishop Wilson’s conviction was overturned on the 14th anniversary of Jim Fletcher’s conviction in 2006 for multiple serious child sex crimes against her son Daniel.
“It’s the anniversary today. Fourteen years today since James Fletcher was found guilty of abusing my son Daniel. That is significant, and here we are still,” she said.
Survivor advocate and Fletcher victim Peter Gogarty said he was really disappointed because “this has been going on for quite some number of years”.
“At a deeper level than that I’m really distressed and very, very sorry for the good people who have taken on the might and the money of the Catholic Church and have just had to sit through a judgment that calls into question the reliability of their memories,” Mr Gogarty said.
Administrator Delegate of Adelaide Archdiocese, Philip Marshall, said the church “needed to consider the ramifications of this outcome”.
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