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Brennan slams Section 316 after Wilson appeal upheld

National

The provision of the NSW Crimes Act under which former Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was originally convicted but then acquitted has been slammed by a leading Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer.

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Following the judgment in the Newcastle District Court on December 6 that the Archbishop’s appeal be upheld, Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO expressed his concern that the case had ever gone ahead in the first place.

In a column in the Jesuit publication Eureka Street, he said that Section 316 of the Act, which deals with failure to report an offence, was “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,” he wrote.

“Everyone, including the victims of abuse and church officials like Wilson, is entitled to be governed by laws which are clear, sensible and practical. Section 316 is not, and never has been.”

Fr Brennan, who is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, believed that Magistrate Robert Stone who tried Wilson’s case failed to apply Section 316 “appropriately” and did not consider “some of the key legal questions necessary to secure a conviction”. He also said he would see little point in the DPP appealing the District Court decision.

Judge Roy Ellis, who heard Archbishop Wilson’s appeal, said in his judgment there was “no basis” for rejecting Archbishop Wilson’s evidence. “On the contrary the very honest features of his evidence…provide a strong platform for accepting him as an honest witness”.

“…I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Philip Wilson in the time period 2004-2006 believed that Mr Peter Creigh had been indecently assaulted by James Fletcher in 1971.”

The trial of the Archbishop earlier this year sparked intense international media scrutiny, which was recognised by Judge Ellis.

While appreciating the media’s interest in the prosecution of institutional sexual abuse or its cover up, he said this should not undermine judicial independence and the rule of law.

“The potential for media pressure to impact judicial independence may be subtle or indeed subversive in the sense that it is the elephant in the room that no one sees or acknowledges or wants to see or acknowledge,” he said.

“But if the verdict is a true representation of justice in the individual case then it is community or media expectations that must be dashed not the hopes of an individual that he or she will receive a fair trial and that the verdict will provide justice in their case in accordance with legal principles that operate in Australia.”

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