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Australian Archbishop Sentenced for Cover-Up of Sexual Abuse

MELBOURNE, Australia — The highest-ranking Catholic official to have been found guilty of concealing sexual crimes against children was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court on Tuesday.

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Adam Baidawi
, New York Times

MELBOURNE, Australia — The highest-ranking Catholic official to have been found guilty of concealing sexual crimes against children was sentenced to 12 months in detention by an Australian court on Tuesday.

The official, Philip Wilson, the archbishop of Adelaide, was sentenced a month after being found guilty of failing to report child sexual abuse. Wilson is expected to serve his sentence under home detention, if a court agrees to the arrangement.

After his conviction, the archbishop gave up his duties but refused to resign. He was convicted of covering up abuse by a priest, Jim Fletcher, in the state of New South Wales in the 1970s.

“We have made history in Australia,” said Peter Gogarty, an abuse survivor, according to ABC News.

There were no immediate indications on Tuesday that the archbishop would resign. Bishop Greg O’Kelly, who was appointed to administer the Adelaide archdiocese after Wilson gave up his duties, said in a statement that his role had not changed.

In court last month, the prosecutor, Gareth Harrison, called Wilson a liar, citing an “unflinching loyalty he has to the Catholic Church, and protecting it at all costs.”

The sentence was announced against the backdrop of efforts by Australian states to pass laws requiring priests to alert the authorities when they are told about child abuse in the confessional.

In the past few weeks, the state of South Australia and the Australian Capitol Territory have passed such laws. The Parliament of the state of New South Wales delayed a vote on a similar law, while the Western Australian government has accepted the idea in principle.

The laws — and the case of Wilson — present a challenge to a long-held paradigm: that Catholic priests can put the interests and law of the church above all else.

After the South Australian law passed, O’Kelly said the law would not affect the South Australian Catholic Church.

“Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ,” he said in an interview with ABC Radio last month.

The Catholic Church considers the sacramental seal “inviolable”; the 1983 Catholic Code of Canon Law rules that it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” The punishment is the church’s most severe: automatic excommunication, revocable only by the pope.

Other senior Catholic figures have echoed the sentiment of O’Kelly. Denis Hart, the archbishop of Melbourne, has said that he would rather risk time in prison than break the seal of confession. In an interview, the Rev. Michael Whelan, a Sydney priest, said that when the state “tries to intervene on our religious freedom, undermine the essence of what it means to be a Catholic, we will resist.”

Whelan added that the only way the authorities would know if the law was being observed would be to try to “entrap” priests.

Last year, Frank Brennan, an Australian human rights lawyer and a Jesuit priest, wrote a lengthy opinion piece titled, “Why I Will Break the Law Rather Than the Seal of Confession.” Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth has previously argued that such laws would simply dissuade guilty priests from confessing to child abuse.

Changing the laws around confessionals was one of more than 400 recommendations made by Australia’s long-running Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In June, the Australian government “noted” the recommendation but said it was a matter for the church and for the legislatures of state governments.

The absolute confidentiality of Catholic confessions has long conflicted with secular law. They have been challenged, but rebuffed, in American courtrooms, where all states and the District of Columbia protect most communications between a clergyman and a churchgoer. After revelations of child sexual abuse in Ireland, the government in 2015 passed the Children First Act, which requires the reporting of child abuse heard in confessionals.

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