An Australian archbishop has been convicted of covering up child sex abuse, becoming the most senior member of the Roman Catholic church to be charged and found guilty of the offence.
Philip Wilson, the Archbishop of Adelaide, faces a possible two years in prison when he is sentenced next month.
He was found to have covered up the abuse of alterboys by the paedophile priest James Fletcher in the 1970s, a charge to which he had pleaded not guilty.
Wilson has been released on bail until he appears at a sentencing hearing on June 9, where prosecutors are expected to argue for a custodial sentence.
In a statement issued by the Catholic Church, Wilson said he was disappointed by the conviction.
“I will now have to consider the reasons and consult closely with my lawyers to determine the next steps,” he said.
Wilson, 67, was found guilty by a Newcastle Local Court, north of Sydney, following a magistrate-only trial.
The clergyman, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease but says medication has helped his memory, maintained during his trial that he could not remember being told by two alterboys in 1976 that they were abused by Fletcher.
Fletcher, who was arrested in 2004 and was found guilty of nine counts of child sexual abuse, died of a stroke in prison in 2006.
Magistrate Robert Stone said he was satisfied one of the altar boys, Peter Creigh had been a “truthful and reliable” witness.
Mr Creigh told the court he had trusted Wilson, then an assistant priest, would take action after he told him Fletcher had repeatedly abused him in 1971 when he was 10.
He said that Wilson had a “look of horror” on his face when told of the abuse, but that he took no action and did not tell police.
The court has ordered that Mr Creigh can be named in media reports on his testimony, but the second accuser cannot be named for legal reasons.
The defense did not challenge Mr Creigh’s truthfulness, but raised concerns about the reliability of his memory of what happened in 1976.
The other former altar boy said he was about 11 in 1976 when he went to confession and told Wilson that Fletcher had abused him.
The witness told the court Wilson refused to believe him because Fletcher “was a good bloke.”
Wilson ordered the boy to get out of the confessional box and say 10 Hail Mary prayers as an act of contrition, the court was told.
Wilson testified last month that he had no memory of seeing the second altar boy at all in 1976 and he would never accuse anyone in the confessional of telling lies.
Defense lawyers had argued Wilson could not be found guilty because the case was circumstantial and there was no evidence to prove the archbishop was told about the abuse, believed it was true, or remembered being told about it.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Creigh called it a “very significant day” for the victims of abuse.
“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,” he said.
Former Police Detective Chief Inspector, who had previously publicly accused the church of covering up Fletcher’s crimes, said outside court he was “delighted” by the verdict.