BACKGROUND: How Archbishop Philip Wilson was put in charge of managing the church's response to child-abuse crimes

  • By a Broken Rites researcher (first written in 2010, updated 14 April 2018)

A prominent Australian Catholic Church leader, Archbishop Philip Wilson, has stated that, during his rise from junior priest to church administrator, he "knew nothing" about the sexually-abusive behaviour of several fellow-priests — even though he lived or worked with some of these criminals. Despite this lack of knowledge, Wilson rose to the top of the Australian church hierarchy. His senior roles eventually included the managing of the church's response to clergy sexual abuse, as well as being appointed as the archbishop of Adelaide. In 2018, Archbishop Wilson is facing a court, charged by police with having concealed child sex abuse allegedly committed by one priest (Fr James Fletcher) during the 1970s.

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.

Some background

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 one version of his own curriculum vitae), 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."

Wilson was one of about six priests who were working 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 eventually pleaded guilty to multiple sexual offences against boys and was jailed.

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.

Fletcher died in 2006, aged 65, after being jailed for raping a 13-year-old boy between 1989-91. In 2014, a Special Commission of Inquiry (appointed by the New South Wales government) found that Fletcher “had an extensive history of perpetrating child sexual abuse in the diocese, exclusively abusing young males, particularly altar boys”. The commission found evidence that Fletcher’s offending began in the 1970s and the commission identified at least five separate victims across the Newcastle region.

The Catholic Church continued to support Father Jim Fletcher, even in death. Fletcher was buried in the priests’ section of Sandgate Cemetery near Newcastle, with a marble headstone celebrating his achievements. The honours outraged Fletcher’s victims, who described the elaborate burial plot as a "final insult".

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 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.

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.

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).

See more background here

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

  1. Denham
  2. Fletcher
  3. McAlinden

Update, April 2018:

Wilson is facing a charge of concealing a crime

In March 2015, New South Wales police charged Philip Wilson with having concealed information about the 1971 sex assault of a 10-year-old boy by pedophile priest James Fletcher in the NSW town of Maitland.

The concealment charge was officially filed before a magistrate in the Newcastle Local Court. Wilson's solicitor indicated that Wilson was pleading not guilty. This was merely the first step the judicial process, with the case being scheduled for further steps in the future.

Wilson hired an expensive defence lawyer to fight the case on his behalf, thus indicating that the judicial contest could be a lengthy one, with long delays before the case might be scheduled for a hearing.

After being charged, Wilson announced (on 20 March 2015) that he was going on indefinite leave. He appointed his vicar-general to administer the archdiocese during his absence.

However, in December 2015 Wilson announced that he intended to resume his role as the Archbishop of Adelaide in January 2016, despite still facing a criminal charge of allegedly concealing Father James Fletcher's crime.

On 25 September 2015, the concealment charge had its first mention in Newcastle Local Court for a preliminary procedure (but Wilson was not required to appear for this preliminary mention). After this, Wilson's lawyers took legal legal action, for two years, trying to block the case from going ahead. But in this attempt eventually failed. In late 2017, the Newcastle Local Court was ready to start hearing the case.

Wilson's presence was needed for the hearing to begin but in November 2017 his lawyer told the court that Wilson was "too unwell" to attend court because he had recently (at the age of 67) developed dementia which (Wilson claimed) is affecting his memory and his cognitive ability, making him unfit to stand trial. However, Wilson also said (in a message to Adelaide parishes on 29 November 2017) that, despite his dementia, he intends to keep his job as the archbishop of Adelaide until he reaches the retirement age for bishops in eight years time when he will be 75.

On 11 April 2018, the Newcastle Magistrates Court dismissed a submission by Wilson's defence barrister that Wilson had no case to answer. Therefore, the court proceedings will go ahead.

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