SYDNEY - The Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide was Tuesday charged with concealing child sex abuse and has taken leave from his high-level Australian position to fight the allegation.
Philip Wilson was charged by New South Wales police in relation to an offence allegedly committed during the 1970s by known-paedophile priest Jim Fletcher, now dead, when both men worked at a diocese near Newcastle, north of Sydney.
Local media said the 64-year-old is thought to be the most senior Catholic official in the world to face charges of this nature, and if sentenced could face up to two years behind bars.
The charge is the work of Strike Force Lantle, which since 2010 has investigated claims of child abuse concealment by former and current clergy attached to the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese of the Catholic Church.
Wilson issued a statement acknowledging the developments.
"I am disappointed to have been notified by the NSW Police that it has decided to file a charge in respect of this matter," he said, adding that he would "vigorously defend" his innocence.
"I intend to take some leave to consult with a wide range of people in response to the information I have received today," he said.
A victim of Fletcher, Peter Gogarty, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he felt overwhelming relief that charges had been laid.
"I think it's a very, very important day for Australia, that we've now had someone in such a high position charged," he said.
"I hasten to add, everyone in this country is entitled to the presumption of innocence, but... the fact that our legal system has decided to charge someone this senior is enormously significant."
The matter is listed for mention in court on April 30.
The charges come as Australia is in the midst of a nationwide investigation into claims of paedophilia in institutions such as religious organisations, schools and state care.
It was established by former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2013 after more than a decade of pressure and has heard damaging allegations of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, schools and other groups dating back decades.
Wilson has given evidence to the royal commission and he said this was indicative of his efforts to adopt "best-practice child protection measures which I have pioneered since becoming a bishop".