A JUDGE has described how Australia’s mainstream media can exert subtle pressure during court cases, as he quashed the conviction of Archbishop Philip Wilson for covering up child sexual abuse.
The former Adelaide Archbishop, on December 6, won a court appeal against his conviction for covering up abuse.
The Newcastle District Court upheld an appeal by Archbishop Wilson, 68, who suffers from early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and attended the hearing via video link.
District Court judge Roy Ellis found “no direct evidence” he had concealed priest Jim Fletcher’s “serious indictable” crimes when talking to police between 2004 and 2006.
“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 has spent the past four months in home detention in his sister’s home on the News South Wales central coast as part of a 12-month jail term.
Archbishop Wilson was prosecuted for allegedly failing to tell authorities about allegations of abuse by another priest from the 1970s and 1980s.
The archbishop was labelled by the media as “the most senior Catholic cleric in the world” to be convicted of not disclosing abuse to police.
Judge Ellis questioned the “accuracy” of evidence relating to an abused 10-year-old altar boy, and accepted Archbishop Wilson’s consistent claims of memory failure about an alleged Easter youth group conversation in 1976.
Judge Ellis ruled prosecutors had not proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that victim Peter Aidan Creigh, 57, had revealed Fletcher’s abuse five years earlier.
Within hours of Archbishop Wilson’s appeal win, the NSW Government ordered its prosecution chief to consider the prospect of a Court of Criminal Appeal bid.
The Adelaide archdiocese is also considering the “ramifications” of the appeal win after Archbishop Wilson resigned to the Pope in August following his jail sentence.
“The survivors of child sexual abuse and their families are in our thoughts and prayers, and the archdiocese remains committed to providing the safest possible environments for children and vulnerable people in our care,” the archdiocese posted on its website.