The Australian

NSW Police Minister Troy Grant lashes ‘appalling’ sentence

for Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson

NSW Police Minister Troy Grant. Picture: AAP
NSW Police Minister Troy Grant. Picture: AAP

NSW Police Minister Troy Grant says it is “appalling” and “not a deterrent” that one of Australia’s most senior Catholic officials, who was found guilty of concealing horrific child sexual abuse, will likely spend less than a year in home detention.

In extraordinary comments this morning, Mr Grant, a former police officer, said yesterday’s decision by magistrate Robert Stone to sentence Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson to six months in custody — with six extra months on parole — is out of step with community expectations.

Wilson, 67, was found guilty in a two-week trial earlier this year of knowing about abuse by late paedophile priest James Patrick Fletcher, but failing to act on it. It was alleged he was told several times in 1976 about Fletcher’s actions on young boys.

“I’m absolutely appalled at this sentence of Wilson. I had involvement having been the officer during my police career that uncovered the paedophilia and cover ups in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese back in 1995. This is no deterrent as a sentence, it’s appalling, the children deserve better, the victims deserve better, and the community do,” Mr Grant told 2GB Radio.

“The parliament can pass all the laws we like, and we have through our wonderful AG (Attorney-General).

“Section 25AA, the sentencing of child sexual offences, says in three parts that they have to be sentenced according to community standards now, not at the time of the offence, and it also says — very importantly — when sentencing an offender for a child sexual offence the court must have regard to the trauma of sexual abuse on children as understood at the time of sentencing and the psychological research or common experience of the courts.

“That hasn’t been done in this case, and that’s why everyone is so disgusted.”

Mr Stone told a Newcastle Local Court yesterday morning he did not believe Wilson’s sentence should be suspended, but said he should be assessed for home detention.

“Given the criminality, the concealment involving child sexual abuse, and the need for a significant element of general deterrence to recognise the harm done to the community and to denounce his conduct, I am firmly of the opinion that a sentence of imprisonment is the only appropriate sentence,” Mr Stone told the courtroom, which was overflowing with victims, victims’ families, police and Catholic officials.

The trial was globally significant as Wilson is the most senior Catholic official ever convicted of concealing child abuse.

While Wilson stood aside from his duties after the guilty verdict, Bishop Greg O’Kelly, Apostolic Administrator of the Adelaide Archdiocese, said the current arrangements for leadership will remain.

“Archbishop Wilson was sentenced … to a non-parole period of imprisonment of six months with an additional period of six months to be served on parole,” he said in a statement.

“The arrangements made by Pope Francis for my care of the Archdiocese as Apostolic Administrator remain in place.”

The charge Wilson faced carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment, but Mr Stone found Wilson’s offence ranked in the “mid-range”.

The magistrate found Wilson was told on a number of occasions in 1976 that late paedophile priest James Patrick Fletcher was abusing children, but failed to act on that information. Fletcher continued to abuse children and was finally convicted in 2004. He died behind bars in 2006.

Archbishop Philip Wilson outside Newcastle Local Court. Picture: AAP
Archbishop Philip Wilson outside Newcastle Local Court. Picture: AAP

Wilson has come under intense pressure to resign his position, given he has been found guilty and will spend at least six months in custody. It is very likely he will appeal the decision.

He has previously said: “If at any point in time it becomes necessary or appropriate for me to take more formal steps, including by resigning as Archbishop, then I will do so.”

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the organisation overseeing the Australian Catholic Church, said in a statement yesterday it hoped the custodial sentence “brings some peace and healing to those abused by deceased priest James Fletcher”. The ACBC, however, did not mention Wilson’s current position as Archbishop.

“The offender is a senior figure in one of the most respected institutions in our society. What has occurred is the infliction of gross acts of sexual abuse on people who were young, defenceless and vulnerable — committed for sexual gratification,” Mr Stone said.

“The children were irreparably harmed and the parents who generally, could be described as people of simple faith, who respected and more importantly trusted their local parish priest, were treated with total indifference and contempt made worse when they did make complaint.”

Mr Stone said, however, in view of Wilson’s age, his prior good record, and the fact he was charged after Fletcher had been apprehended meant he should be considered for home detention.