SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian court on Thursday overturned the conviction of a former archbishop who had been the world’s most senior Catholic cleric held guilty of concealing child sex abuse, saying prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.
Judge Roy Ellis ruled in favour of an appeal by Philip Wilson, the former archbishop of Adelaide and a former president of the Catholic Church’s top body in Australia, against his conviction in May, court documents show.
“The appeal is upheld,” read a summary of the decision emailed to Reuters by a court spokeswoman. “The conviction and the orders of the local court are quashed.”
Ellis delivered the decision at Newcastle District Court in New South Wales, freeing Wilson, 68, from detention for a year at his sister’s home, as an alternative to prison, after his conviction for failing to disclose to police abuse by a priest.
The judge held that prosecutors failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Wilson had been told of the accusations, and that if he had been told, that he was sufficiently convinced of guilt, but failed to act.
At trial, Wilson had said he could not remember the accusations being raised with him in 1976.
“I’m not up for talking,” Peter Creighton, an altarboy at the time of the alleged abuse, who said he had raised the issue with Wilson, told reporters outside the court, as he held back tears.
The Adelaide archdiocese said it welcomed the conclusion of a process that had been long and painful for all concerned.
“We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome,” its administrator delegate, Father Philip Marshall, said in a statement that gave no further details, but added the survivors of child sexual abuse “are in our thoughts and prayers”.
Wilson had been accused of covering up the abuse, by Father James Fletcher, after being told about it in 1976 by two victims, one of them an altar boy who allegedly told him in the confessional.
Lawyers for Wilson had maintained he did not know Fletcher had abused a boy. Fletcher was found guilty in 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse and died in jail in 2006, following a stroke.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Clarence Fernandez