Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson should be sent to jail for covering up child sex abuse by a pedophile priest, a NSW court has been told.
Wilson, the most senior Catholic official in the world to be charged with the offence, was on Tuesday found guilty in Newcastle Local Court of failing to report to police the repeated abuse of two altar boys in the 1970s.
Magistrate Robert Stone accepted the two boys told Wilson in 1976 that priest James Fletcher had repeatedly abused them in the NSW Hunter region but the clergyman did nothing.
Wilson faces a maximum two years in prison.
Prosecutor Gareth Harrison told the court the 67-year-old had to be jailed for what he had done to deter others from trying to protect the Catholic Church from abuse allegations.
One of the abused altar boys, Peter Creigh, said he trusted Wilson – then an assistant priest – would take action after being told how Fletcher had repeatedly abused him when he was 10 in 1971.
Wilson had worked with Fletcher and lived with him for a short period of time but denied they were friends.
“The likelihood of two young boys individually telling the accused (Wilson) of acts of sexual misconduct by another priest who the accused knows … are matters I am very confident would be remembered for a very long time,” the magistrate said.
“You have to ask why the accused did not do what he himself says he would do now (go to the police) in the same situation. The answer I believe relates to the accused having a sense of knowing what he was hearing was a creditable allegation.
“In addition, the accused wanted to protect the church and its image.”
Wilson, who is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease but claims medication has helped his memory, told the court during his landmark magistrate-only trial that he could not remember the two altar boys telling him in 1976 about the abuse.
The prosecution argued Wilson failed to give details to police about a serious indictable offence after Fletcher was arrested in 2004 and went on trial for preying on another young boy.
Fletcher was found guilty in December 2004 of nine counts of child sexual abuse. He died in jail of a stroke in January 2006.
Outside court, Mr Creigh told reporters the magistrate’s decision was “a huge sense of relief” and a “very significant day for all victims and their families”.
He hopes the decision will “unravel the hypocrisy, deceit and abuse of power and trust” displayed by the Catholic Church.
In a statement released by the Catholic Church, Wilson said he was “disappointed” by the decision.
“I will now have to consider the reasons and consult closely with my lawyers to determine the next steps,” he said.
The defence had argued Wilson was not guilty because the case was circumstantial and there was no evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the archbishop was told about the abuse, believed it was true or remembered being told about it.
Sentencing is set to begin on June 19.