FORMER Hunter priest Archbishop Philip Wilson, the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be charged with concealing the child sex crimes of another priest, has launched his third attempt to stop the case against him from proceeding.
Barrister Bret Walker, SC, for the archbishop, told three judges of the NSW Court of Appeal on Thursday that the charge against his client was invalid because of changes to the law since 1971, when Hunter priest Jim Fletcher is alleged to have sexually assaulted a 10-year-old boy at Maitland.
Archbishop Wilson was charged with failing to tell police between 2004 and 2006 of what he allegedly knew or believed about Fletcher, based on alleged conversations with two alleged victims of Fletcher in 1976.
Police allege the information might have helped in 2004 after Fletcher was charged with offences against a third victim, and convicted of serious child sex offences. Fletcher died in jail in 2006. The police case is that a Hunter woman and a priest told Archbishop Wilson in 2004 that Fletcher had sexually assaulted a fourth victim.
The evidence was capable of showing that by 2004 Archbishop Wilson would have formed a belief that Fletcher committed offences against the 10-year-old in 1971, and the information should have been reported to police, police allege.
Archbishop Wilson pleaded not guilty after he was charged in March, 2015 with an offence under section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act, of concealing what he knew about Fletcher.
Archbishop Wilson became the most senior cleric, and one of only a handful of Catholic clerics in the world, to be charged with a conceal offence.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard evidence that few countries in the world, and only two Australian states, NSW and Victoria, have legislation allowing for people to be charged with conceal offences for failing to report alleged crimes to police.
In February 2016 Newcastle Local Court magistrate Robert Stone rejected the archbishop’s application to permanently stop the case after the archbishop argued the charge was invalid, the evidence was incapable of proving the offence and the matter was “foredoomed to fail”.
Mr Stone noted there were “significant issues for the prosecution” but rejected the permanent stay application which was “only used in most exceptional circumstances”.
In October NSW Supreme Court Justice Monika Schmidt rejected Archbishop Wilson’s appeal against Mr Stone’s decision.
The evidence on which the prosecution case relied involved “considerably more than the mere making of an allegation by a victim” to the young priest Philip Wilson about Fletcher in 1976, Justice Schmidt said.
The alleged victim from 1971 was a teenager who “got on very well” with the then Father Wilson through a church youth group “in a way he had not, to that point, been able to do with any other adult”, Justice Schmidt noted.
“The victim’s allegations (against Fletcher) were about repeated offending of the most serious kind, involving masturbation, oral and other sexual assault of a young child by a priest, contrary not only to law, but it may be reasonably inferred, contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Justice Schmidt said.
The police case is that Father Wilson reacted with shock to the information and told the victim he would report his allegations. When the victim approached him again later in 1976, police allege Father Wilson said the matter was still being investigated.
Police allege a second young man in 1976 disclosed to Father Wilson in the confessional that he had also been sexually assaulted by Fletcher.
The police case is that in 2004, after Father Wilson was an archbishop, a Hunter woman and a priest told him about allegations against Fletcher from another victim. The priest is expected to give evidence that the archbishop told him he had a legal obligation to report the allegations to police.
After a short hearing on Thursday, where NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Lloyd Babb represented the prosecution, NSW Court of Appeal Chief Justice Tom Bathurst reserved the court’s decision.