Retired Australian bishop charged with 19 abuse offenses

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Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, president of the Australian bishops' conference, speaks to reporters at a news conference at the Vatican April 20, 2023. Archbishop Costelloe has said the investigation into allegations against retired Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome is "right and proper, and indeed necessary" after he was arrested Feb. 21, 2024, by Western Australian police on nearly 20 charges of historical sexual abuse.(CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

BROOME, Australia (OSV News) — The Australian bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, has said the investigation into allegations against retired Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome is “right and proper, and indeed necessary” after he was arrested by Western Australian police on nearly 20 charges of historical sexual abuse.

Police launched their second investigation into the former leader of the outback diocese in the country’s northwest after the church provided a Vatican report detailing its own investigation under “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You are the Light of the World”) in September 2023.

The papal document “Vos Estis” on the responsibilities and accountability of bishops and superiors of religious orders with regard to clergy sex abuse was first issued in 2019. Pope Francis in 2023 promulgated an updated version of the church’s norms to prevent and counter sexual abuse against minors and vulnerable adults, and extending the norms to cover lay leaders of international associations of the faithful recognized by the Holy See. “Vos Estis” allows for the removal of bishops and superiors for serious negligence or “lack of diligence” in the exercise of their office, in particular with regard to the sexual abuse of minors.

19 alleged offenses

A statement by Western Australia police said that Child Abuse Squad detectives had arrested a 74-year-old man in Broome Feb. 21. Footage from TV network Seven showed Bishop Saunders being led away by police after his arrest.

He was subsequently charged in court in relation to 19 alleged historical offenses including two counts of rape, 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault, and three counts of indecently dealing with a child age 16 to 18. He was refused bail and scheduled to appear in court the next day.

“Allegations against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders are very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making those allegations,” said Archbishop Costelloe. “It is right and proper, and indeed necessary, that all such allegations be thoroughly investigated.

“The Church will continue to cooperate fully with the police and take every necessary step to avoid any actions which may compromise the integrity and autonomy of the police investigation.”

Bishop Saunders appeared in court in remote Western Australia on Feb. 22. The charges against him were presented in Broome Magistrates Court, a court spokesperson told Reuters news agency, who declined to say whether Bishop Saunders had entered a plea.

The investigation by the Church included both alleged canonical crimes and alleged breaches of the Church’s “Integrity in Ministry” protocols by Bishop Saunders.

It was launched after Western Australia police had closed an earlier investigation without pressing any charges.

A 7 News report, which aired Sept. 18, 2023, said the alleged offenses date back to 1976.

A powerful figure in a remote diocese

Bishop Saunders has spent almost 50 years in the Australian Catholic Church’s Kimberley mission. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Broome in 1976. He was named bishop of Broome Nov. 3, 1995, and ordained and installed to head the diocese Feb. 8, 1996.

In March 2020, he voluntarily stepped aside from administration of the diocese after the Vatican ordered a review of diocesan financial matters and his handling of abuse allegations. Western Australian Police had been investigating an allegation of sexual misconduct made against him 18 months earlier, though the probe did not lead to charges against the bishop.

Bishop Broome’s resignation was accepted by Pope Francis in 2021.

The charges lodged against him Feb. 22 involve abuse claims that allegedly occurred in the remote Western Australian towns of Broome and Kununurra and in the Aboriginal community of Kalumburu between 2008 and 2014, BBC reported. The diocese covers about 297,000 square miles — an area roughly the size of Turkey — and encompasses some of the most remote parts of the country.

The BBC added that Bishop Saunders was well known for socializing and escorting young men on camping and fishing trips. He has long been a powerful figure within the local community and reportedly even has a beer named after him.

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