Background article: The career of Archbishop Philip Wilson

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, updated 14 December 2018

This Broken Rites article is about the career of Australia's Archbishop Philip Wilson. Late in his career, police alleged that Wilson had covered up for a priest (Father James Fletcher) who indecently assaulted a ten-year-old boy (Peter Creigh). Police alleged that, when they were investigating Father Fletcher in 2003-2004 regarding a different victim (Daniel Feenan), Archbishop Wilson possessed information (about the abuse of Peter) which might help the case against Fletcher but Wilson concealed this information, thus protecting the criminal Fletcher. A court convicted Archbishop Wilson regarding his concealment of Peter's abuse. On 6 December 2018, a court quashed Wilson's conviction. This court case, however, was regarding only one of the church's victims, Peter Creigh. What did Wilson know about other criminal priests?

According to Broken Rites research, Philip Edward Wilson was born in 1950. The eldest of five children, he grew up within the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, north of Sydney. This is one of the eleven regional Catholic dioceses in New South Wales.

After finishing his schooling, he was accepted by the Maitland diocese as a candidate to enter a seminary in Sydney to study in for the priesthood.

After being ordained a priest of the Maitland Diocese in August 1975, aged 25, he was appointed as an assistant priest in the town of Maitland (St Joseph's parish). This put him at the centre of the diocese, which then had its headquarters in Maitland.

He was well regarded by Maitland's bishop, Leo Clarke, who administered this diocese from 1975 to 1995. Beginning in the late 1970s, Wilson gradually developed a role as a reliable functionary in this diocese. He soon became an assistant to Bishop Clarke. The bishop resided at "Bishop's House" in Maitland.

During this work in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Father Wilson worked alongside some of this diocese's criminal priests.

In 1978 and 1979 (according to one version of his own curriculum vitae), Father Philip Wilson was the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan Director of Religious Education. While holding that position, he also taught religious education at St Pius X Catholic High School in Adamstown, in the city of Newcastle. Wilson has stated (in a 20-minute video-taped conversation with journalist Alan Atkinson on 21 May 2010) that in 1978-79 "I lived at St Pius X for nine months and taught there for a year." There were six priests teaching at this school, and they lived in bedrooms located within the school building, not far from the classrooms. Yes, a school with bedrooms for the teachers. This school became notorious for child-sex crimes committed by priests such as Father John Denham.

In 1980 (according to his curriculum vitae), Father Wilson became the secretary to Maitland's Bishop Leo Clarke, as well as Master of Ceremonies for the diocese. That is, from 1980, Wilson's secretarial role involved spending time at the "Bishop's House", where Bishop Clarke lived in Maitland.

(Wilson had already been spending time in the town of Maitland, since he was appointed as an assistant priest in his first parish — East Maitland in 1975. And even while working in the city of Newcastle in the late 1970s, he made regular visits to Bishop's House in Maitland.)

During the early 1980s (according to the annual Catholic directories in the early 1980s) Bishop Clarke had a fellow-resident at Bishop's House — Father James Fletcher. For some years, Fletcher had been the administrator (i.e., priest in charge) at the Maitland cathedral and had also been the master of ceremonies for Bishop Leo Clarke.

By 1982 (according statements made by Wilson), Wilson too was residing at Bishop's House as a full-time resident, along with Leo Clarke and Jim Fletcher (whereas in the earlier years Wilson, according to his own account, had been spending time there as an occasional visitor).

In the mid-1980s, Bishop Clarke transferred Fletcher from the Maitland Cathedral parish to other, less important parishes. In 2005 Fletcher was jailed for child-sex offences committed against one of his victims in the 1990s.

According to the police involved in Fletcher's court case, Bishop Clarke knew in the late 1970s that Fletcher's liking for young males was a potential public-relations problem for the cathedral.

Fletcher died in 2006, aged 65.

The Catholic Church continued to support Father Jim Fletcher, even in death. Fletcher was buried in the priests’ section of Sandgate Cemetery near Newcastle, with a marble headstone celebrating his achievements. The honours outraged Fletcher’s victims, who described the elaborate burial plot as a "final insult".

Wilson's later career

Meanwhile, Father Philip Wilson's career blossomed. In 1987, he was appointed as the Vicar-General of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese — that is, the chief administrator, immediately under the bishop.

This was the year that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese was facing exposure and embarrassment because of child-sex abuse committed in parishes by Father John Denham (so this diocese brazenly transferred Denham to Sydney to work as a chaplain at Waverley Christian Brothers College, thereby putting more children in danger). Wilson, however, has told the ABC that Denham's transfer was arranged not by him but by Bishop Clarke.

Around this time, 1987, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese transferred the sexually-abusive Father Denis McAlinden thousands of kilometres away to a parish in Western Australia.

In 1996 Wilson was appointed as the Bishop of Wollongong (south of Sydney) to clean up a public-relations disaster there, caused by Wollongong's church-abuse scandals.

In 2001, he became of the Archbishop of Adelaide.

After this, Wilson was a member of the Australian bishops' National Committee for Professional Standards (the committee that is concerned with managing the church's sex-abuse crisis) and later he had ten years as the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference (again, at the centre of the church's sex-abuse crisis).

The charges in court

Father James Fletcher had multiple victims. In May 2003, New South Wales Police charged Father James Fletcher with having committed "a serious indictable offence (namely, indecent assault)" against one of those victims (this was Daniel Feenan).

Fletcher's case had to wait during 2003-2004 for the court process to be completed. Fletcher was finally convicted in December 2004. By then, Philip Wilson was the Archbishop of Adelaide; that is, by 2003-2004, Archbishop Wilson was a senior official of the church, not a junior priest.

Later, in Newcastle Local Court, prosecutors began laying charges against Archbishop Wilson regarding concealment.

The prosecutors alleged that, during 2003-2004, Archbishop Wilson allegedly knew or believed that James Fletcher had committed an offence against another victim — a ten-year-old boy, Peter Creigh. That is, Wilson's concealment regarding Peter occurred in 2003-2004.

Archbishop Wilson (according to the prosecutors) allegedly knew or believed that he had information which might be of material assistance in securing the prosecution of James Fletcher but Wilson failed to bring that information to the attention of the police. Archbishop Wilson, the prosecutors said, did not have a reasonable excuse for the failure.

[Broken Rites normally doesn't publish the names of victims, but both Daniel Feenan and Peter Creigh have authorized their full names to be used in the media.]

Lengthy court proceedings

Wilson hired an expensive defence lawyer to fight the case on his behalf, thus indicating that the judicial contest could be a lengthy one, with long delays before the case might be scheduled for a hearing.

After being charged, Wilson announced (on 20 March 2015) that he was going on indefinite leave. He appointed his vicar-general to administer the archdiocese during his absence.

However, in December 2015 Wilson announced that he intended to resume his role as the Archbishop of Adelaide in January 2016, despite still facing a criminal charge of allegedly concealing Father James Fletcher's crime.

On 25 September 2015, the concealment charge had its first mention in Newcastle Local Court for a preliminary procedure (but Wilson was not required to appear for this preliminary mention). After this, Wilson's lawyers took legal legal action, for two years, trying to block the case from going ahead. But in this attempt eventually failed. In late 2017, the Newcastle Local Court was ready to start hearing the case.

Wilson's presence was needed for the hearing to begin but in November 2017 his lawyer told the court that Wilson was "too unwell" to attend court because he had recently (at the age of 67) developed "dementia" which (Wilson claimed) is affecting his memory and his cognitive ability, making him unfit to stand trial. However, Wilson also said (in a message to Adelaide parishes on 29 November 2017) that, despite his "dementia", he intended to keep his job as the archbishop of Adelaide until he reaches the retirement age for bishops in eight years time when he would be 75.


On 11 April 2018, the Newcastle Magistrates Court dismissed a submission by Wilson's defence barrister that Wilson had no case to answer.

On 22 May 2018, the magistrate handed down the court's verdict — guilty. Wilson was released on bail until the sentencing..

Meanwhile, Wilson had already said publicly that he would not be resigning from his position as archbishop unless "it becomes necessary and appropriate." On 23 May 2018, after being cvonvicted, Wilson announced (apparently with an air of reluctance) that he would "stand aside" (but not resign) from his archbishop duties for the time being.

Sentence and appeal

In Newcastle Local Court on 3 July 2018, Magistrate Robert Stone conducted the sentencing procedure.

The prosecution had recommended that Mr Stone should impose a jail term. The church's defence lawyer had urged Mr Stone to release Wilson if promising to be of good behaviour.

The magistrate sentenced Wilson to 12 months in custody, with release possible after six months if Wilson observes the conditions. Mr Stone proposed that, in view of Wilson's claims about health problems, he would be allowed to serve this jail sentence via home detention [at his sister's house on the NSW Central Coast], rather than behind bars.

Despite his conviction, Wilson defiantly refused to resign as the Archbishop of Adelaide — until a public outcry eventually forced his resignation.

Philip Wilson began serving his home-detention sentence but he lodged an appeal to the NSW District Court against his conviction.

On 6 December 2018, appeal judge Roy Ellis quashed Wilson's concealment-conviction regarding Father Fletcher's abuse.

According to Catholic Church conventions, Philip Wilson still has the status of a bishop, although he lacks a specific territory to govern.