Archbishop Philip Wilson and the Catholic Church's damage control on clergy sex abuse

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Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church-related

By a Broken Rites researcher

A prominent Australian Catholic Church leader, Archbishop Philip Wilson, has said (in media interviews in 2010) that originally as he began his rise from junior priest to church administrator, he "knew nothing" about paedophiles. It is interesting, therefore, that Australia's Catholic hierarchy kept promoting Wilson to increasingly important positions of authority, including positions that included the managing of church sexual abuse.

From 1996 onwards, Wilson was a long-time member of the Australian bishops' National Committee for Professional Standards -- the body that was established to oversee the management of the church's sexual-abuse crisis.

In 2001, Wilson's fellow bishops elected him as the chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference — at a time when the worldwide Catholic hierarchy was being accused of having covered up clergy sex-abuse crimes. He held this top position for the next ten years.

This career rise is quite significant for someone who says he formerly "knew nothing" about paedophiles.


Philip Edward Wilson was born in 1950, the eldest of five children, and grew up within the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, north of Sydney. This is one of the eleven Catholic dioceses in New South Wales.

After finishing his schooling, he was accepted by the Maitland diocese as a candidate to enter a seminary in Sydney to study in for the priesthood.

After being ordained a priest of the Maitland Diocese in August 1975, aged 25, he was appointed as an assistant priest in the town of Maitland (St Joseph's parish). This put him at the centre of the diocese, which then had its headquarters in Maitland.

He was well regarded by Maitland's bishop, Leo Clarke, who administered this diocese from 1975 to 1995. Beginning in the late 1970s, Wilson gradually developed a role as a reliable functionary in this diocese. He soon became an assistant to Bishop Clarke. The bishop resided at "Bishop's House" in Maitland.

So, during this work in the late 1970s and the 1980s, what did Wilson know about the following priests?

1. Father John Denham

In 1978 and 1979 (according to his own curriculum vitae on his Adelaide website), Father Philip Wilson was the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan Director of Religious Education. While holding that position, he also taught religious education at St Pius X Catholic High School in Adamstown, in the city of Newcastle. Wilson has stated (in a 20-minute video-taped conversation with journalist Alan Atkinson on 21 May 2010) that in 1978-79 "I lived at St Pius X for nine months and taught there for a year."

Strangely, however, Wilson's curriculum vitae does not mention his teaching post at St Pius X High School. Why this omission?

Wilson was one of about six priests who were teaching at St Pius X. One of the others was Father John Sidney Denham. These priests lived in bedrooms located within the school building, not far from the classrooms. Yes, a school with bedrooms for the teachers.

According to students, it was common knowledge at the school that it was not safe to be alone with Father Denham.

In 1980, following a complaint from a pupil's family about Denham's sexual abuse, the diocese transferred Denham away from the St Pius X school to work as an assistant priest in parishes.

Denham has pleaded guilty to multiple sexual offences against boys and has been jailed.

Therefore it would be interesting to find out if Philip Wilson ever heard anything about Father Denham's extra-curricular activities while Wilson was a colleague of Denham.

A former student at St Pius X High School told Broken Rites on 22 May 2010: "Denham was recklessly overt in his paedophile behaviour [at the school]. There was nothing discreet or covert about him. He targeted boys and fussed over them. It would be useful if other teachers or priests from the St Pius X school would speak out."

2. Father Jim Fletcher

In 1980 (according to his curriculum vitae), Father Wilson became the secretary to Maitland's Bishop Leo Clarke, as well as Master of Ceremonies for the diocese. That is, from 1980, Wilson's secretarial role involved spending time at the "Bishop's House", where Bishop Clarke lived in Maitland.

(Wilson had already been spending time in the town of Maitland, since he was appointed as an assistant priest in his first parish — East Maitland in 1975. And even while working in the city of Newcastle in the late 1970s, he made regular visits to Bishop's House in Maitland.)

During the early 1980s (according to the annual Catholic directories in the early 1980s) Bishop Clarke had a fellow-resident at Bishop's House — Father James Fletcher. For some years, Fletcher had been the administrator (i.e., priest in charge) at the Maitland cathedral and had also been the master of ceremonies for Bishop Leo Clarke.

By 1982 (according statements made by Wilson), Wilson too was residing at Bishop's House as a full-time resident, along with Leo Clarke and Jim Fletcher (whereas in the earlier years Wilson, according to his own account, had been spending time there as an occasional visitor).

In the mid-1980s, Bishop Clarke transferred Fletcher from the Maitland Cathedral parish to other, less important parishes. In 2005 Fletcher was jailed for child-sex offences committed against one of his victims in the 1990s.

According to the police involved in Fletcher's court case, Bishop Clarke knew in the late 1970s that Fletcher's liking for young males was a potential public-relations problem for the cathedral.

Therefore, the question arises: Did Father Philip Wilson ever hear about Fletcher's activities with young males while Wilson was assisting Bishop Leo Clarke in diocesan administration in the late 1970s and early 1980s? If not, why not?

3. Father Denis McAlinden

In 1985, Bishop Clarke asked Father Wilson (as the diocesan secretary) to visit the Merriwa parish to receive complaints that Father Denis McAlinden had sexually abused girls in the parish school (this information is in a statement made by Wilson himself).

And in 1995, according to church documents, Bishop Leo Clarke appointed Fr Philip Wilson as the notary to record the proceedings in a church inquiry into further complaints against Father Denis McAlinden.

But this information about McAlinden was not reported to the police. Thus, McAlinden's crimes were never aired in court — and the church's holy public image was protected.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 18 June 2010, the next Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle (Michael Malone, the successor to Leo Clarke) said that Archbishop Philip Wilson needs to clarify what he knew about the paedophile priest Denis McAlinden.

Wilson's later career

Meanwhile, Father Philip Wilson's career blossomed. In 1987, he was appointed as the Vicar-General of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese — that is, the chief administrator, immediately under the bishop.

This was the year that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese was facing exposure and embarrassment because of child-sex abuse committed in parishes by Father John Denham (so this diocese brazenly transferred Denham to Sydney to work as a chaplain at Waverley Christian Brothers College, thereby putting more children in danger). Wilson, however, has told the ABC that Denham's transfer was arranged not by him but by Bishop Clarke.

When Wilson heard about Denham's strange transfer out of the diocese, did he know about Denham's record of child-abuse? Or does he say that he "knew nothing"?

And around this time, 1987, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese transferred the sexually-abusive Father Denis McAlinden thousands of kilometres away to a parish in Western Australia. Did Wilson know the reason for this transfer (and the reason for McAlinden's other extraordinary interstate and overseas transfers)? Or does he say he "knew nothing"?

In 1996 Wilson was appointed as the Bishop of Wollongong (south of Sydney) to clean up a public-relations disaster there, caused by Wollongong's church-abuse scandals.

After this, came Wilson's role on the Australian bishops' National Committee for Professional Standards (the committee that is concerned with managing the church's sex-abuse crisis) and later his ten years as the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference (again, at the centre of the church's sex-abuse crisis).

So, some day, perhaps Archbishop Wilson will reveal what he knew about his colleagues' sexual abuse while he was working at the centre of power in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. And perhaps he will explain why the church authorities in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese were slack in bringing church-related sex-abuse crimes to the attention of the police.

See more here

The Broken Rites website has an article about each of these criminal priests: