Vatican replaces Australian Archbishop convicted of covering up child sex abuse

The Vatican on Sunday announced a temporary replacement for an Australian archbishop who was convicted of concealing child sex abuse by a fellow priest in the 1970s.

Bishops wait for the arrival of Pope Francis during the general assembly of the Italian Bishops Conference, on May 21, 2018, at the Vatican. (Credit: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP / Getty Images)

Bishops wait for the arrival of Pope Francis during the general assembly of the Italian Bishops Conference, on May 21, 2018, at the Vatican. (Credit: Vincenzo PINTO / AFP / Getty Images)

Pope Francis said in a statement that Greg O’Kelly, the current Bishop of Port Pirie, in the state of South Australia, would temporarily replace Philip Wilson, the Archbishop of Adelaide, who stepped aside after being convicted of covering up abuses last month.

Wilson is the highest ranking Catholic official to be convicted of covering up sexual abuse, part of a global scandal that has dogged the Vatican for decades.

The 67-year-old was found guilty of having concealed the abuse of altar boys in the 1970s by a pedophile priest colleague, James Fletcher, when he was an assistant parish priest in the state of New South Wales.

Archbishop Wilson stepped down on May 23, a day after he was convicted at the Newcastle Local Court in New South Wales.

As part of his defense, Wilson’s legal team argued that because child sexual abuse was not considered a serious crime in the 1970s, it was not worthy of being reported to authorities, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

At the time, Wilson released a statement that 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.”

Wilson faces a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Letter asks families to ‘pray for him’

Following the conviction, a letter from Wilson was sent to Catholic schools across South Australia asking families to “pray” for him, according to the ABC.

In the letter, Wilson said that, “while the legal process runs its course, I want to assure the Catholic faithful in the Archdiocese of my continued prayers and best wishes and assure everyone that the affairs of the Archdiocese will be appropriately managed in my absence.”

However some parents of schoolchildren who received the letter criticized the Archbishop’s apparent lack of remorse for his crime and lack of empathy for victims of sexual abuse.

Historical abuse

Archbishop Wilson was a junior priest when Fletcher, a Catholic Priest based in the Hunter Valley of NSW, abused altar boys.

Wilson was charged in 2015, accused of failing to report Fletcher’s abuse to police.

Fletcher died in prison in 2006, a year after being found guilty of eight counts of child abuse and sentenced to 10 years.

Speaking to reporters outside the Newcastle Court last week, one of Fletcher’s victims praised the Archbishop’s conviction.

Former altar boy Peter Creigh, who waived his right to a non-publication order on his name, said, “It’s a decision that will hopefully unravel the hypocrisy, the deceit, and the abuse of power and trust that the Church has displayed. And I say that on behalf of all victims, because it is a very, very significant day.”

Creigh told the court he had described the abuse to Wilson in detail five years after it took place, the ABC reported.

Widespread claims

Allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church stretch across multiple countries with large Catholic populations, including Austria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United States, where children accused more than 4,000 priests of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, according to a report compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Last month, Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell faced his first appearance at an Australian higher court after a Melbourne magistrate ordered him to stand trial on multiple charges of historical sexual abuse.

Pell is the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged sexual assault. He is on leave from the Vatican while he contests the claims.

The charges relate to claims of historical sexual abuse spanning three decades, and include events that allegedly took place at a swimming pool in rural Victoria in the 1970s and at St Patrick’s Cathedral during the 1990s, when Pell served as Archbishop of Melbourne.