ROME — Pope Francis on Monday accepted the resignation of Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson, the most senior Catholic Church leader to be convicted in a criminal court of concealing sexual abuse, the Vatican said.
The move comes as Francis faces a new wave of challenges about how to how to handle not only priests who have abused children but also the cardinals and bishops who allowed the abuse to happen — or, in some cases, carried it out themselves.
It is the second time in three days that the Argentine pontiff has accepted a major resignation stemming from sexual abuse, part of a global reckoning for a church that has long been reluctant to discipline those at its highest echelons. On Saturday the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, became the first cardinal in history to step down due to allegations of sexual abuse.
Wilson, the Adelaide archbishop who was found guilty in May of concealing sexual abuse of children during the 1970s, previously refused to resign, saying he was entitled to due process and that he was pressing forward with an appeal. But the case became a point of widespread contention in a nation scarred by decades of sexual abuse within the church, and this month, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on Francis to discipline Wilson, saying, “The time has come for the pope to sack him.”
In a statement released Monday by the Catholic archdiocese of Adelaide, Wilson said he submitted his resignation to Francis on July 20 and hoped his decision could help to “heal pain and distress.”
“Though my resignation was not requested, I made this decision because I have become increasingly worried at the growing level of hurt that my recent conviction has caused within the community,” Wilson said.
For Francis, the latest resignation points to a central debate within the Roman Catholic Church about how to hold bishops accountable. Those bishops have operated for decades with little fear of punishment — a blind spot that abuse victims say is one of the Vatican’s greatest failings.
“Standard procedures do not exist” for handling negligent bishops, said Sergio Cavaliere, a Naples-based lawyer who represents seven victims of sexual abuse by priests. “There’s no way for victims to reach out to Catholic institutions and ask them to investigate the negligence and abuse of bishops and cardinals.”
Francis is facing a massive case of abuse in Chile that has led the country’s 34 bishops to offer their resignations. So far, he has accepted five of those resignations.
Next month, Francis is to travel to Ireland, a country still reeling from abuse scandals.
And in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s treasurer and widely considered its No. 3 official, is preparing to stand trial on numerous sexual offense charges.
On Saturday, Francis took one of the most significant steps of his papacy, ordering McCarrick to live under de facto house arrest in advance of a canonical trial. Some experts have speculated that the Vatican could move to strip McCarrick, 88, of his clerical status, meaning he would become a layperson.
McCarrick faces no criminal charges, and his alleged acts — the sexual abuse of two minors and three adults — occurred decades ago.
Wilson was sentenced recently to a 12-month detention for what an Australian court said was his failure to report cases of sexual abuse carried out in the 1970s by a priest, James Fletcher. Two altar boys said they told Wilson about abuse at the hands of Fletcher. In the courtroom, one described how Fletcher had forced him to strip and kneel as he masturbated. Prosecutors said that Wilson did nothing with the information.
In 2004, Fletcher was found guilty on nine counts of sexual abuse. He died in prison in 2006.
Wilson denies that he was told about the abuse.
Wilson, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, stepped away from his day-to-day work after his conviction. But he retained the title of archbishop.
“While the judicial process will continue, Archbishop Wilson’s resignation is the next chapter in a heartbreaking story of people who were sexually abused at the hands of Jim Fletcher and whose lives were forever changed,” the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, said in a statement. “This decision may bring some comfort to them, despite the ongoing pain they bear.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.