Recently a friend abused by a priest in Newcastle 40 years ago took his own life. Archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted this week for concealing sexual abuse in that diocese around the same time. Church leaders valued the institution ahead of its people, and unfortunately it appears little has changed in the attitude of the Australian bishops.
In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.
I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.
Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.
Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.
Unfortunately it appears – to me at least – that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.
Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal … retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’
He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.
According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.
As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson – with his understandable lack of objectivity – to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have been publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).
Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.
As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.
If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.
Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street and CathNews