The Pope has effectively sacked Philip Wilson after the Adelaide archbishop refused to stand down despite being the most senior Catholic to be charged, convicted and sentenced for concealing child sexual abuse.
The Vatican announced last night that Francis had accepted the resignation of Wilson.
Wilson had withstood calls to go from Malcolm Turnbull, insisting he would remain in his role through an appeals process.
The Australian understands the Prime Minister, who had called on the Pope to sack Wilson, had conveyed to archbishops Anthony Fisher and Mark Coleridge that Wilson must either resign or be sacked by the Pope.
Mr Turnbull sent the same message to the Vatican via Australia’s ambassador, Melissa Hitchman. He was told of Wilson’s resignation on the weekend, and it was announced at noon in Rome yesterday.
“I welcome Philip Wilson’s resignation as archbishop of Adelaide today, which belatedly recognises the many calls, including my own, for him to resign. There is no more important responsibility for community and church leaders than the protection of children,” he said last night.
Following his conviction in Newcastle Local Court, Wilson was sentenced this month to six months in home detention, with an extra six months to be served on parole.
He returns to court on August 14 after being assessed for home detention. Although he could still be sent to jail, this is thought unlikely given his poor health.
Magistrate Robert Stone found Wilson was told on several occasions in 1976 that pedophile priest James Patrick Fletcher was abusing children but failed to act.
He wrote to parishioners in the Adelaide archdiocese that he hoped his resignation would be a “catalyst to heal pain and distress”. He said his resignation “was not requested” and he had acted because he had “become increasingly worried at the growing level of hurt my recent conviction has caused within the community”.
He said there was “too much pain and distress” to carry on until the appeals process was exhausted.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference called Wilson’s resignation “the next chapter in a heartbreaking story of people who were sexually abused at the hands of Jim Fletcher and whose lives were forever changed.
“This decision may bring some comfort to them, despite the ongoing pain they bear.
“Archbishop Wilson has been praised by many for his work to support victims and survivors of child sexual abuse as bishop of Wollongong, archbishop of Adelaide and president of the Bishops Conference.”
One of Fletcher’s victims, Peter Creigh, believed Wilson was “a young priest … that I could trust with the knowledge of the abuse” and told him twice about what he had suffered five years earlier. Nothing was done, and Fletcher continued to abuse children. He was convicted in 2004 and died in jail in 2006.
Wilson’s legal team made four attempts to have the case thrown out, including arguing he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which, it was argued, should have precluded his standing trial but did not affect his ability as archbishop.
Appealing to the Pope, Mr Turnbull said the time had come for “the ultimate authority in the Church to take action and sack” Wilson.
Bill Shorten had made a similar call: “Philip Wilson’s position is untenable. If he doesn’t have the decency to resign, his superiors in the church should take action. The community has spoken. The courts have spoken. It’s time for the church to truly listen.”
A statement on the Vatican News twitter account last night acknowledged pressure in Australia for Wilson to resign. “Archbishop Wilson had resisted calls to resign his role as archbishop. He plans to appeal his conviction and had previously said he would resign only if that failed,” it said.
Catholic Bishops Conference president Mark Coleridge released a statement after the sentence indicating other senior officials had advised Wilson.
“Although we have no authority to compel him to do so, a number of Australian bishops have offered their advice privately,” he said. “Only the Pope can compel a bishop to resign.”
Francis, 81, has sacked bishops in the past. In 2014, he sacked a Paraguayan bishop accused of protecting a pedophile priest.
But it is unusual for an archbishop to face the sack and it is a world first for such a senior Catholic official to be fired for concealing abuse.