Archbishop Philip Wilson had his conviction quashed. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer
Archbishop Philip Wilson had his conviction quashed. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer

The overturned conviction most didn’t hear about

Yes, there is a media witch hunt to convict Catholic priests, and a judge last week called it out.

Judge Roy Ellis of the NSW District Court had just quashed a highly dubious conviction against former archbishop Philip Wilson.

He knew he'd just robbed the media of its prey - the man the media had earlier boasted was the "most senior Catholic clergyman in the world to be convicted of concealing child sexual abuse".

He also knew he wouldn't be praised by the press pack swarming his court, noting: "Intended or not, the mere presence of large amounts of media from all around Australia and the world carries with it a certain amount of pressure on the court."

He meant a pressure to convict.

This heavy media presence, he said, "may amount to perceived pressure for a court to reach a conclusion which seems to be consistent with the direction of public opinion, rather than being consistent with the rule of law that requires a court to hand down individual justice …

Archbishop Philip Wilson had his conviction overturned. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer
Archbishop Philip Wilson had his conviction overturned. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer

"The potential for media pressure to impact judicial independence may be subtle or indeed subversive in the sense that it is the elephant in the room that no one sees or acknowledges or wants to see or acknowledge."

Oh, but we have seen that elephant, all right. We have seen the media pack stampeding through other hearings of other churchmen.

I have noted, too, how the media has trumpeted wild allegations as fact, and kept quiet when those allegations were proved false.

But the Philip Wilson case is as bad as any of the many examples I could give.

The accusation he faced was in two parts. First, a boy, Peter Creigh, allegedly told him 42 years ago that he'd been abused by another priest, Jim Fletcher.

Then, 28 years later, Wilson allegedly failed to report this to police when Fletcher was investigated for other child sex offences in 2004.

Wilson protested that he could not recall this alleged conversation, and that any such hearsay information from the victim would not have helped police in 2004, anyway.

An innocent Catholic priest isn’t news on the ABC. Picture: AAP Image/Darren Pateman
An innocent Catholic priest isn’t news on the ABC. Picture: AAP Image/Darren Pateman

 

Fletcher by then was already before the courts, facing much more damning evidence, and spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Yet a Newcastle magistrate convicted Wilson in July, after other witnesses said they'd told Wilson similar things.

One, another of Fletcher's victims, said he'd told Wilson in confession about his own abuse, also in 1976, and knew it was Wilson behind the confessional grille because he'd recognised his "booming voice" and very red lips.

The magistrate accepted this evidence as "reliable", even though he admitted it had been "contradicted by Mr Creigh's evidence that the accused did not have a distinctive voice or very red lips".

But on appeal, Judge Ellis accepted the evidence of a memory expert that even "entirely honest individuals" could form "false memories" and "then present those memories confidently".

He said Creigh, now 57, was an honest witness, but gave 14 reasons to doubt his evidence.

Why was Creigh so inconsistent in details of what had happened, where and when?

 

Abuse victim Peter Creigh outside court with his family. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer
Abuse victim Peter Creigh outside court with his family. Picture: AAP Image/Peter Lorimer

Why had he made no notes of his conversation with Wilson in all the decades since?

And why had he not told anyone else about this abuse for another 33 years, until he finally told his family in 2009?

"It is not inconceivable that in looking back Mr Creigh convinced himself that he had complained rather than asking himself why he didn't complain, which might especially be so if he had wanted to complain but never actually did."

I have not heard all the evidence. I do not know who is right.

But I admire a judge who is determined to resist all public pressure and decide a case on the facts and the law. This is our last defence against mob rule and the media pack that has since shown where its true interests lie.

When Wilson was convicted in July, the coverage was intense and celebratory.

ABC television, for instance, covered it extensively on The Drum and its 7.30 program. Wilson and his church were excoriated, and the NSW Police Minister protested that his 12-month sentence was too light.

But when Wilson's conviction was quashed, neither program mentioned it.

An innocent Catholic priest isn't news. Or not the news so desperately wanted.

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