Statement by Bishop Bill Wright on the Unexpected Death of Archbishop Emeritus Phillip Wilson

I was saddened to learn of the death of Archbishop Emeritus Philip Wilson on Sunday afternoon. Although he had been very unwell in recent years, his death was sudden and unexpected.

I first met Philip Wilson just on fifty years ago. He was the appointed senior student of the old seminary at Springwood when I arrived there and was an impressive and effective leader of the student body. After ordination I did not see a great deal of him, as he was a priest in Maitland-Newcastle and I was in Sydney, but I was not surprised when he became a young Bishop of Wollongong in 1996. He went on to be made Archbishop of Adelaide in 2001 and was elected President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference from 2006 to 2010.

Archbishop Wilson became known for taking a lead on addressing issues of child sexual abuse in both Wollongong and Adelaide, which was recognised by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In both cases studied by the Royal Commission, he took strong action against abusers even after the matters had been left to rest by church and civil authorities.

On the other hand, in relation to the history of child sexual abuse in Maitland-Newcastle diocese, the Cunneen Special Commission of Inquiry made findings against Archbishop Wilson, that he knew of both James Fletcher’s and Denis McAlinden’s abuse. He was tried and convicted on the first of these, though the conviction was overturned on appeal. These matters overshadowed Archbishop Wilson’s final years and he resigned as Archbishop in 2018.

To some extent, in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, Archbishop Wilson has become a polarising figure. There are many who remember him with high esteem and great affection, while others still consider him guilty of playing a part in covering up abuse and thus allowing it to continue. With his sudden passing yesterday, I hope that time will allow us all to see a man who committed his life to the service of Christ and his people but who, as a young man, found himself working in a deeply flawed organisation at a very evil time. Whatever happened then, however he may have failed, it is not the whole story. When he was in charge, things were done differently.

On behalf of the people of Maitland-Newcastle I express my most sincere sympathies to the Wilson family in their loss. May he now rest in peace.