Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Philip Wilson's dead letter day

  • 07 December 2018


The show trial of Archbishop Philip Wilson has backfired badly causing hurt to many people, most especially victims of child sexual abuse who thought the law was being rightly applied to put an errant Catholic bishop in the frame.

Wilson was charged under a provision of the New South Wales Crimes Act, section 316, which has hardly ever been used. It's a provision which was introduced in 1990. It was reviewed by the New South Wales Law Reform Commission in 1999 and comprehensively trashed. Some commissioners thought the provision should be abolished. Others thought it should be retained.

But even they said, 'It must be accepted that the present provision is seriously flawed; to be brutal about it, it is in several crucial respects virtually meaningless. In our view, the essential problem is not that the section's underlying philosophy is mistaken but that it breaches the fundamental rule that the criminal law be unambiguous.' For all practical purposes, the provision has now been replaced by a much more sensible and workable provision, section 316A, which is designed to deal with failures to report child sexual abuse.

Robert Stone, the magistrate who tried Wilson's case, failed to apply the cumbersome section 316 appropriately. But it's hard to blame Stone too much as the provision is so badly drafted that even a bench of Supreme Court judges would have trouble making sense of it. And Philip Wilson was always the wrong test case for this cumbersome, unworkable legislative provision.

The New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions decided to charge Wilson with a very convoluted offence under section 316. The charge related to the Archbishop's alleged failure to report information more than 33 years after an alleged child sexual assault by a priest Fr Fletcher, and 28 years after it was alleged that the victim Peter Creigh had told Wilson about the assault. This was the charge:

'Between 12:01 am on 22/04/2004 and 11:59 pm on 07/01/2006 at East Maitland. Whereas James Fletcher in 1971 committed a serious indictable offence, namely, indecent assault of a male, aged 10 years old, Philip Edward WILSON between 22 April 2004 and 7 January 2006 at MAITLAND and elsewhere in the State of New South Wales, believing that Fletcher committed that offence and knowing that he had information which might be of material assistance in securing the prosecution of Fletcher for that offence, without reasonable excuse, failed to bring that information