Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction sends a loud and clear message about accountability. That Wilson is facing jail for covering up historic acts of sexual abuse perpetrated by fellow priest Fr Jim Fletcher, shows the courts are going to hold all church and community leaders — especially those with responsibility for the well-being of young people — fully accountable for what they do. And for what they don’t do.
Wilson was found guilty of deliberately concealing extremely serious sexual offences committed against young boys some 40 years ago in the Hunter Valley.
Sexual acts involving a minor have never been legal anywhere in Australia. Indeed, Fletcher was eventually caught and jailed for child sex offences, dying in prison in 2006.
But it is inconceivable that when the victims approached Wilson, he did not know laws had been broken and serious crimes had been committed on numerous occasions. So why did he do nothing about it at the time?
In addition to the inaction, the magistrate also found it “incomprehensible” that Wilson had no recollection whatsoever of any of the conversations he’d had with the young boys.
There are many tragedies caught up in the catastrophe of child sexual abuse that has swept through many Australian religious and secular institutions.
The prime tragedy, of course, is the terrible suffering and humiliation endured by young victims who are scarred for life by their experiences, and who bear the pain of their abuse into adulthood.
Another tragedy is the utter collapse in the moral and spiritual authority of the churches in Australia. Remember that many faith-based charities do great work with the sick, the aged, and the homeless.
But they know their dedicated work has been corroded by the heinous behaviour of a small number of paedophiles who have exploited their standing in the community to take advantage of the vulnerable.
It’s not just a matter of the law having been broken. The solemn vows priests take at ordination include promises to live by high moral standards and to care for those committed to their charge.
The misconduct Wilson has now been found guilty of having concealed was not just illegal: it was a complete moral corruption of everything that Christian ministry in the churches ought to be.
There are two important lessons to be learned from the Wilson conviction. First, the passage of time will never draw a veil over events in the past heavy enough to conceal them from scrutiny today.
It is quite possible that police investigations will bring to light offenses committed many years ago in other parts of Australia. If so, we can expect to see more cases like this coming before the courts.
The second lesson is being learned by the churches. Expectations of the moral standards of behaviour from church leaders — lay and ordained — remain as high as they ever were.
Leaders like Wilson have been caught in a kind of time warp. Actions of long ago, whose impact might not have been fully understood, are now being judged by the standards of today
And those standards are being enforced in a professional and vigorous way — with no one being left in any doubt about what the church expects of those who profess to serve in ministry.
‘Accountability’ is today’s new watchword. And not just for the Anglican, Catholic and Jewish institutions that are currently the focus of legal cases, but for all religious and community organisations whose work depends on earning the total and dependable trust of others.
Peter Kurti is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies