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Australian archbishop convicted of covering up sexual abuse

Philip Wilson, an Australian archbishop, was found guilty of concealing child sex abuse by a priest. (Video: Reuters)
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Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson knew, the men told the court.

He knew that the Rev. Jim Fletcher had been sexually abusing young altar servers. He knew because they told him. He knew because they asked him for help.

Now, Wilson is going to jail.

The Roman Catholic leader was convicted of failing to act on reports of child sex abuse. He faces as much as two years in prison. The 67-year-old is the most senior Catholic leader to ever be charged with concealing abuse.

In the courtroom, Peter Creigh testified that Fletcher made him strip and kneel as he masturbated. He was abused at 10, he said, and he told Wilson about it in 1976, when he was 15. Wilson was a parish priest at the time. Another former altar boy said he brought his concerns to Wilson, as well. (Fletcher was found guilty of multiple counts of sexual assault of boys in 2004 and died two years later in prison.)

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Wilson, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, contradicted those claims. He told the court that he had never been told of the abuse. His lawyers also emphasized his reputation for acknowledging sexual abuse in the church. He issued a formal apology to the victims as bishop of Wollongong.

But, ultimately, Judge Robert Stone sided with Creigh and the others who testified.

“The reliability of these people cannot be questioned or attacked,” Stone said in his decision. “They were people who, as a whole, were believable.”

Abuse survivor Peter Gogarty hailed the verdict as one of the most significant in Australian history.

“On behalf of all of the victims — who have been abused in this country and elsewhere — I just want to say what an enormous relief it is that the people who let this happen are finally being brought to account,” he told ABC outside the courtroom after the verdict.

Wilson will be sentenced June 19. In a statement to reporters, he said he was “disappointed” by the decision and that he'll consult his lawyers about next steps.

The decision comes as Australian Cardinal George Pell will soon stand trial for allegations of “historic sexual abuse.” Pell is a top official in the church and a key ally of Pope Francis.

Last year, Australia published a major report on sex abuse by clergy. More than 8,000 people were interviewed over five years to understand their experiences of abuse. As a result, more than 2,500 cases were referred to police. The report's authors also recommended that the church lift its celibacy requirement and require priests to report abuse revealed during confession.

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