Adelaide’s Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson has been convicted of covering up the sexual abuse of children1 perpetrated by priest James Fletcher in Newcastle and the Hunter region in New South Wales2.
Fletcher was convicted of nine counts of sexual assault against boys as young as 12. In late 2004, he was sentenced to at least seven years in prison without parole. His crimes dated back to the 1970s, and in 1978 was administrator and master of ceremonies at St John’s Cathedral in Maitland, under Bishop Leo Clarke. It was about this time that he developed a disturbing interest in the Cathedral’s altar boys, which usually involved a period of grooming followed by sexual assault. At this time Fletcher was living with Philip Wilson. One of Fletcher’s victims maintained that he was abused in the apartment Fletcher shared with Wilson, and the latter saw him coming and going to the apartment on multiple occasions. This same victim is certain Wilson knew about the abuse, but that he chose to ignore it. Wilson denies this3.
Bishop Clarke was aware of Fletcher’s proclivities, but simply moved him to other parishes such as Gateshead and Denman, instead of doing anything to actually prevent further abuse, apparently because that “was in the best interests of the church”. This sort of coverup continued for well over 20 years, and it was not until 2003 that he was stood down, because prior to this the church “did not deem him to be a risk”. Fletcher died in gaol in 20063. He was buried in the priests’ section of Sandgate Cemetery (in Newcastle) with a marble headstone celebrating his achievements. I cannot imagine how this makes some of his victims feel. His funeral was attended by 30 Catholic priests who attended despite knowing of his crimes. Even worse, after his death, a group of his church supporters raised money to fight a High Court appeal against his conviction4.
Wilson faces up to 2 years in prison for his lack of action. However, it is a fair bet that he will not go to gaol, as the church will pull out all stops to prevent this from happening. All sorts of testimonials will be received as to his good character, his good works etc. His sentencing will be a measure of how much power the Catholic Church still has now that all these depredations against children have been uncovered. Wilson’s conviction is thought by some to presage the beginning of a spate of prosecutions for sex abuse cover-ups by members of the clergy2.
One wonders how the church’s reputation would be if its local hierarchy had dealt with these paedophile priests when they found out about them. Instead they have been caught by the media and the judiciary, with their collective trousers around their ankles screwing the people for whom they professed to care. But it is not only the church who are guilty. As I related in an earlier essay, in the 1970s a joke went around Newcastle: Q: What punishment does a priest get if he is caught molesting children? A: Another parish5. In addition to the church, the parishioners knew what was going on, the populace knew what was going on; the police knew what was going on; the judiciary knew what was going on; and nobody did anything about it for almost three decades. It makes you wonder how many lives were destroyed in those three decades while Fletcher and his ilk were given open slather.