CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A Roman Catholic archbishop in Australia was charged Tuesday with covering up for a pedophile priest during the 1970s.
Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson said he was disappointed that New South Wales state police had decided to charge him with concealing a serious child sexual abuse offence. Wilson said he would fight the charge, which carries a potential two-year prison sentence.
The charge alleges the 64-year-old failed to report child sex abuse carried out by priest James Fletcher during the 1970s when they both served in the town of Maitland, north of Sydney.
Fletcher died in prison aged 65 in 2006, a year into an almost eight-year sentence for raping an altar boy between 1989 and 1991.
"The suggestion appears to be that I failed to bring to the attention of police a conversation I am alleged to have had in 1976, when I was a junior priest, that a now deceased priest had abused a child," Wilson said in a statement.
"From the time this was first brought to my attention last year, I have completely denied the allegation," he said.
Wilson said he take leave from his job "to consult a wide range of people" about the charge.
Jason Parkinson, a Canberra lawyer who specializes in representing victims of clergy abuse in civil law suits, said he not aware of anyone else ever being charged with covering up child sex abuse in the church in Australia.
"We can only hope that this is the beginning of a number of people being charged with concealing child abuse," Parkinson said.
A police statement said Wilson had been served with a notice that requires him to appear in a court in Newcastle, north of Sydney, on April 30.
A police task force was established in 2010 to investigate allegations of concealment of serious offences related to child abuse by clergy attached to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese of the church.
Wilson is one of Australia's most senior bishops, serving as President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference from 2006 until 2012.
A victim of Fletcher's pedophilia, Peter Gogarty, said he felt relief that police had charged Wilson.
"I think it's a very, very important day for Australia, that we've now had someone in such a high position charged," Gogarty told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.