THE most senior Catholic clergyman in the world to be convicted of concealing child sexual abuse has had his conviction overturned on appeal.
Former Australian archbishop Philip Wilson, 68, had served almost four months of a 12-month home detention sentence before winning his appeal at Newcastle District Court in New South Wales on Thursday.
The cleric was convicted in May of concealing indecent assaults on two altar boys by paedophile priest Jim Fletcher in the Hunter region of NSW in the 1970s.
He has consistently denied the allegations and initially resisted calls to step down as Archbishop of Adelaide.
But he resigned in July after then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Vatican to sack him.
Judge Roy Ellis found there was reasonable doubt that Wilson had committed the crime, which is punishable by up to two years in prison.
"There is no proper basis upon which I can rely to reject the evidence of the appellant," he said.
In his ruling, the judge noted "inconsistencies" with the accuser's statements regarding an alleged conversation he had with Wilson about the abuse.
"This court could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the conversation took place at all," Judge Ellis said.
The Catholic Church in Australia said it would consider the ramifications of the former archbishop's acquittal.
Administrator Delegate of the Adelaide Archdiocese, Philip Marshall, said the Church noted the judgement and welcomed the conclusion of a process that had been long and painful for all concerned.
"We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome," Marshall said in a statement.
"The survivors of child sexual abuse and their families are in our thoughts and prayers, and the archdiocese remains committed to providing the safest possible environments for children and vulnerable people in our care."
First ordained as a priest in 1975, Mr Wilson was appointed Bishop of Wollongong by Pope John Paul II in 1996 and Archbishop of Adelaide five years later.
There was no dispute during his initial trial that Fr Fletcher, who died in custody in 2006, sexual abused children when Wilson was still a junior priest.
Newcastle Magistrate Robert Stone in May rejected Wilson's claim that he could not remember any altar boys telling him of abuse due to suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
At the time, the court found the evidence presented by the victims "very credible".
But survivors of clerical abuse were left in tears after Wilson's conviction was quashed on Thursday, including Peter Creigh – one of the two altar boy victims – who was too upset to comment outside court.
Fellow survivor Peter Gogarty said the Catholic Church had shown no genuine remorse for the abuse of children by clergymen.
Child abuse survivor Peter Gogarty reacts to the quashing of former Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction for covering up abuse by a fellow priest. Full details @7NewsSydney pic.twitter.com/vw6SQZYe9o
— Bryan Seymour (@BryanSeymour1) 6 December 2018
"I'm very disappointed as you'd expect. I'm disappointed at a personal level ... but more importantly, I'm very disappointed for the other people, good, honest, reliable people," Mr Gogarty told reporters outside court.
"Those people have stood up to the might and the money of the Catholic Church and they've been deeply hurt by this decision. So, I feel terribly for them."
In October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised on behalf of Australia for failing to protect thousands of survivors of institutional child abuse.
The apology came after a government-ordered royal commission detailed harrowing allegations of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools – often dating back decades – following 15,000 interviews with survivors over five years.
Australian Catholic leaders vowed later that month that the Church's "shameful" history of child abuse and cover-ups would never be repeated.