A New South Wales court on Thursday ruled against the landmark conviction of former Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson for concealing child sex abuse within the church.
The 68-year-old became the world's most senior Catholic official to be convicted of the crime in May, but the Newcastle District Court found there was reasonable doubt of his guilt.
"There is no proper basis upon which I can rely to reject the evidence of the appellant," Judge Roy Ellis told the court in his summing up.
Wilson had been found guilty of covering up abuse by late pedophile priest Jim Fletcher, who was convicted in 2004 of the repeated sexual abuse of two altar boys in the 1970s. The local court that heard the case ruled that Wilson had dismissed the "credible allegations" out of a desire to protect the reputation of the church.
One of the victims allegedly told Wilson about the abuse by Fletcher in a church confessional in 1976. However, Judge Ellis said he could not be adequately satisfied that the conversation had taken place.
Freed from home detention
Wilson resigned his position in July after then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urged the Vatican to sack him. He had been serving a 12-month home detention sentence at his sister's home in New South Wales when the sentence was overturned.
The Adelaide archdiocese said it welcomed the conclusion. "We now need to consider the ramifications of this outcome," said administrator delegate, Father Philip Marshall.
Having served as a priest in New South Wales, Wilson was appointed Bishop of Wollongong in 1996 by Pope John Paul II. He became the Archbishop of Adelaide five years later.
Fletcher, who was an assistant priest at the time of the offenses, died in prison in 2006.
In October, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologized on behalf of the country for failing to protect survivors of institutional child abuse. The apology came in response to a five-year royal commission that investigated widespread allegations of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sports clubs, youth groups and schools.
rc/ng (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)