BACKGROUND: An archbishop has delayed facing court, charged with cover-up

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 5 December 2017

For more than two years, Adelaide's Archbishop Philip Wilson has delayed turning up in court, where he is to be charged with allegedly concealing a colleague's child-sex abuse 40 years ago. Police allege that Wilson knew about (but kept quiet about) offences committed by pedophile priest James Fletcher in New South Wales. Archbishop Wilson was supposed to attend Newcastle Local Court in New South Wales on Tuesday 28 November 2017, to begin a two-weeks hearing about the alleged concealment, but his lawyer told the court that Wilson is "too unwell" to attend court because he has recently (at the age of 67) developed dementia which (Wilson says) 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 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. The Wilson case is listed again for court on 6 December 2017.

Archbishop Wilson is understood to be the most senior Catholic leader worldwide to face court over a concealment allegation of this type.

NSW Police originally filed the concealment charge against Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson in court In 2015. Police alleged that Wilson concealed information about the 1970s sex assault of a 10-year-old boy by pedophile priest James Fletcher in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, in New South Wales. In the 1970s, both Father Wilson and Father Fletcher were priests in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese. This was not Father Fletcher's only victim; Father Fletcher is known to have had an extensive history of committing sexual crimes against boys, particularly altar boys.

Police allege that Father Philip Wilson became aware of Fletcher's abuse, concerning one of these boys, but Wilson allegedly kept quiet about it.

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). Since then, Wilson's lawyers have been taking legal action, for two years, trying to block the case from going ahead. But this attempt has failed. Now, the Newcastle Local Court is ready to start hearing the case -- case number 2015/00080438 -- and Wilson's presence is needed for the hearing to begin.

Some background

After beginning his priestly career in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, Father Philip Wilson became the Bishop of Wollongong, south of Sydney. Since 2001, he has been Archbishop of Adelaide. In 2015, he took leave from the position of archbishop, because of the court proceedings but, by the end of that year, he decided to resume acting as the archbishop of Adelaide, although he has not yet been cleared by the courts. Now, in late 2017, he has taken leave again because of his court case which was to begin on 28 November 2017.

Father James Fletcher was eventually jailed for some (but not all) of his child sexual-abuse. Fletcher died in jail.

In 2012, the New South Wales Government established a Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the alleged cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese. It was alleged that the church hierarchy relocated some abusive priests and turned a blind eye to abuse. The commission's report was submitted to the state government in 2014. The inquiry found that some senior church officials did have information that would have assisted a police investigation of child sexual abuse.

To read more about Father James Fletcher (and one of his many victims), click HERE.

Death of a witness

Another priest (Father Glen Walsh), who was scheduled to give evidence for the prosecution in Archbishop Wilson’s concealment trial, died suddenly (at the age of 55) on 6 November 2017, just a few weeks before the Archbishop Wilson case was due to begin. A coroner's inquest is to be held to investigate the circumstances of Father Walsh's death.

Reporting the death, the Newcastle Herald stated (on 8 November 2017):

"There are no suspicious circumstances. Maitland-Newcastle diocese confirmed his death and the Coroner’s investigation but made no further comment. Father Walsh is believed to have taken his own life."

Former Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who investigated the pedophile priest Fr James Fletcher, has praised Fr Glen Walsh's work in fighting clergy child-abuse.

After hearing of Fr Glen Walsh's death, Mr Fox said:

"He [Father Walsh] was instrumental in bringing a further victim of Father Fletcher to myself when I was investigating Fletcher - it made a huge difference [in Fletcher's trial]."

Mr Fox said:

"His [Fr Glen Walsh's] duty wasn't first to the church. His duty was first to the abuse victims and to his God. And he did what he believed to be ethically right - even if it did damage the church. He had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and followed that path."

Broken Rites has traced Father Glen Walsh's parish appointments by searching through the annual editions of the printed Australian Catholic Directory. Fr Walsh belonged to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, which covers a group of parishes around the Hunter Valley and the adjacent NSW coast). He was first listed in the directory in early-1998 as an assistant priest at the Gateshead/Windale parish (south of the city of Newcastle). In early-1999, he was listed at Newcastle's Sacred Heart Cathedral.

In 2000 and 2001, he was listed as a chaplain at St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, in Sydney. After this, he spent several years "on leave".

In 2007, he was listed as an assistant priest at Rockdale-Arncliffe parish (in the Sydney diocese). In 2009 and early-2010, he was an assistant priest at Sydney's Carringbah parish. After this, he was listed as "on leave" until the 2014 directory listed him as "retired".