Philip Wilson should be a hero to everyone who cares about justice. With little encouragement beyond the determination to prove his innocence this elderly Roman Catholic bishop, not in the best of health, refused to abandon his fight against a wrongful conviction in connection with child sexual abuse. He wasn’t charged with abusing anyone himself – far from it – only with not having reported abuse to the police when, it was alleged, he came to hear of it. He denied the charge and has been vindicated in court.
With little encouragement is an understatement. It would be truer to say with much discouragement. Apart from the fact that in Australia today anyone charged with anything even remotely to do with child abuse is invariably presumed by the media to be ipso facto guilty, there were not lacking those in Wilson’s own Church for whom he might just as well have been guilty, the way they treated him.
Wilson was Archbishop of Adelaide when convicted by a Newcastle magistrate in May on a charge which went back four decades to his days as a young priest in the Hunter Valley. His archiepiscopal status made him the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in the world convicted in connection with child sexual abuse. He was sentenced to home detention and stated that he would appeal against the conviction and that, although he had stood down for the duration of the case, he was not resigning as archbishop (something he would not have had to do by church law until he turned 75 in seven years’ time) until his legal options were exhausted. Was he supported in his determination to clear his name and return to his post by the fraternal encouragement of his Catholic brethren? Not on your nelly he wasn’t. Sundry clerical voices urged him to resign. The pin-up of the Catholic Left, Father Frank Brennan, wrote in Eureka Street that Wilson should ‘tender his resignation’ ‘promptly’. The new Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, not yet installed in his own cathedra, did his bit to dislodge Wilson from his. Wilson gave in and resigned. He couldn’t fight battles on two fronts.
Innocence and guilt appear to be all the same to those Catholics who joined this kicking of a man already down. Even though an appeal was his right, the fact that Wilson had been convicted meant to them that he was an embarrassment and a liability, tainted with the sex-abuse virus. It was one of those exercises in damage limitation that the Catholic Church is so frequently accused of in connection with abuse. It used to be shunting priests who’d been accused in one place to somewhere else. In Wilson’s case it was an effort – successful – to shunt him out of office altogether.
When those two moral exemplars, the then prime minister and the leader of the federal opposition, shoved their oar in, they outdid the ecclesiastics. With the appeal unheard Malcolm Turnbull pronounced in July that ‘the time has come for the Pope to sack Wilson’. Bill Shorten said that if Wilson didn’t have the ‘decency’ to resign he should be forced out (Labor knows all about that).
Political grandstanding aside, the Wilson case is another indication that the Roman Catholic Church in this country is still flagellating itself over child abuse. It is terrified, but of what? Media condemnation? Fairfax is historically anti-Catholic anyway and the ABC has become so. But who with any degree of sound judgment cares what the media say? Sadly, it seems, the Australian Catholic hierarchy does. Despite the statistically tiny proportion of Catholics among abusers, bishops can’t stop ‘apologising’. In the Catholic diocese of Ballarat, Victoria, scene of several of the more publicised abuse cases, the Church’s ongoing contrition is proclaimed as if it were a new religion. The church paper there, Our Diocesan Family, never lets up quoting expressions of Catholic remorse, a remorse which is being perpetuated by a ‘memorial’ garden at the cathedral, bright with coloured ribbons that somehow indicate solidarity with abuse ‘survivors’. Not that this has done Catholic credibility any good locally. Most people I encounter think the Church has blown it good and proper and should just shut up.
Of course child abuse is a terrible evil, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the current ‘crisis’ has been played up to further various secular agendas by people, especially on the Left, who are not necessarily primarily motivated by concern for children. Public life in all Western countries is becoming increasingly inimical to Christianity. The marginalisation of the Church is important to those who wish to destroy the family as our society’s basic unit or impose weird theories of ‘gender’ as a ‘fluid’ concept in place of the two sexes Christians believe God made. To the dreamers-up and so far rather successful implementers of these and other Huxleian fantasies, the Catholic Church’s interminable guilt is a huge advantage. It acts as a muzzle on the Church speaking out against them and as a distraction from any Catholic attempt to marshal itself in sustained opposition to progressive tinkering.
It certainly acted as a muzzle on any Catholic solidarity with Wilson. And yet the former archbishop is now a free man. If he hadn’t been preached out of office he might have returned to his post. Those who could not wait for his appeal before rushing into judgment did him out of a job. Of course, though this is a different question, he might not have been up to going back to it. As we may yet come to see in another case, the stress of being held up to vituperative hatred as a public enemy can be strong enough to dissipate any energy for returning to a former post after a favourable verdict.
The Roman Catholic Church in Australia is to hold a national ‘plenary council’ in 2020. This is being promoted as a ‘listening event’ with bishops ‘listening’ to what ‘ordinary Catholics’ are, supposedly, saying. Will it be hijacked by those who are still saying sorry? If so, Catholicism will continue its slide into irrelevance. But perhaps in another eighteen months there will be enough Catholics saying instead that it’s time to move on from the horrors of child abuse, get onto the front foot and start trying to reacquaint our nation with its basic Judaeo-Christian values before the secularists win by default.
A resolve of that sort might, in addition to being sorely overdue, be some sort of consolation to Philip Wilson for having been thrown, by his Church, under the bus.
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