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Updated: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference clarifies key questions in Bishop Saunders investigation

Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues is a journalist for The Catholic Weekly. She also writes at marilynrodrigues.com. Email her at [email protected]
Former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders.
Former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders.

Updated 22/09/2023

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has published a further statement in response to key media questions around the investigation of Bishop Christopher Saunders:

The Vatican initially entrusted the Church’s internal investigation of allegations against Bishop Saunders to Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle, the then-Chair of the Bishops Commission for Professional Standards and Safeguarding.

Upon the death of Bishop Wright, the Vatican turned to the then-President of the Bishops Conference, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge. His brief was to oversee the process according to the norms of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, ensuring its integrity and its independence from local Church authorities in Western Australia.

“The Church could commence its internal investigation only once it was formally notified by WA Police that they had closed their investigations, which took a long time,” said Archbishop Coleridge.

“The Church can confirm that Bishop Saunders refused to leave the Diocese and chose not to participate in the Church’s investigation within the deadline of six months initially stipulated by the Vatican.

“The investigation by the Church included both alleged canonical crimes, as defined by Vos Estis Lux Mundi, and alleged breaches of the Church’s Integrity in Ministry protocols.”

On August 28, 2021, the Vatican appointed Geraldton Bishop Michael Morrissey as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Broome following the Pope’s acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Saunders.

“The Church understands and takes seriously its mandatory reporting obligations under Western Australian law. It’s important to note that the list of alleged victims and potential victims was already held by WA Police based on their own investigations,” said Bishop Morrissey.

“Despite allegations to the contrary, the Church has not breached the Children and Community Services Act 2004, which applies only to children. Mandatory reporting obligations under the Act only apply to a child under the age of 18. Further enquiries were made after the report was submitted and no potential victims in the report were confirmed or identified as being under the age of 18.”

The Church has handed the report to WA Deputy Commissioner of Police, Allan Adams, and the Church and Police remain in ongoing and collaborative contact on the matter.

“The Church will continue to offer full transparency and cooperation with WA Police. The Church encourages anyone who has experienced abuse, or suspects abuse within the community, to come forward and report it to police,” said Bishop Morrissey.

Other points of clarification:

  • At no point did the Church oppose the provision of the report to WA Police. To portray the discussions as in any way adversarial is false. After a request was made by WA Police to the Church on Tuesday, September 19, a positive response was immediately offered, with the report provided directly to the Deputy Commissioner of Police on Thursday, September 21.
  • The Church’s internal investigation into Bishop Saunders under Vos Estis Lux Mundi is ongoing.

Updated 21/09/2023

The Catholic Church is taking “immediate steps” to provide Western Australian police with a Vatican report into sex abuse and other misconduct claims against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders.

It comes after a request from the WA Police Deputy Commissioner Allan Adams on 19 September to the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, for a copy of the Vos Estis report.

“Following yesterday’s request from the Western Australia Police, the Church is taking immediate steps to provide them a copy of the Vatican-initiated report into Bishop Christopher Saunders,” said Archbishop Costelloe in a statement on 20 September.

“The Church and Western Australia Police remain in ongoing and collaborative contact in relation to this matter.”

The Church’s investigation was established by the Holy See in September last year after WA police had concluded their inquiries into abuse allegations against Bishop Saunders.


20/09/2023

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, has called for a “just and authoritative finding” following 7 News reports that the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, was being investigated by the Vatican over allegations of child abuse.

The 7 News story, which aired on 18 September, said the alleged offences date back to 1976.

7 News reported they had obtained the full Vatican report, conducted under the Vos Estis Lux Mundi process established by Pope Francis in 2019, which 7 News detailed was completed in April and relates to allegations that the bishop sexually assaulted four young victims and groomed a further 67.

It also referred to hundreds of thousands of dollars in church collection and charity funds allegedly misappropriated by the cleric, including for the purposes of grooming vulnerable young Aboriginal males.

“The Bishop has been variously described by witnesses as … a sexual predator that seeks to prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys,” the Vatican’s Vos Estis report states, according to 7 News.

“During the investigation, four victims of sexual (delictual) acts were identified.”

Bishop Saunders has strenuously denied the allegations and stood down in 2020 after media reports that police had begun investigations into historic sex abuse claims against him.

That police investigation has concluded and no charges were laid.

Pope Francis accepted the bishop’s resignation in August 2021 and the Holy See’s canonical investigation, overseen by the former head of the Australian Bishops Conference Archbishop Mark Coleridge, was launched in September 2022.

President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, said in a statement on 18 September that the allegations are “very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making the allegations” and expressed hope that the Vatican’s determinations not be “unduly delayed.”

“It is right and proper for them to be thoroughly investigated,” the archbishop said.

“The Catholic Church’s investigation into allegations against Bishop Saunders could not commence until the Western Australia Police Force concluded its inquiries.

“The Church’s subsequent investigation established by the Holy See (Vatican) last year was overseen by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, but entrusted to an experienced and independent specialist investigations organisation.

“Its comprehensive inquiries examined several serious allegations.

“That independent report has been provided to the Holy See, with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith continuing the investigation.

“We will respect the enduring confidential nature of this process by not commenting on specific allegations that have been raised.

“Bishop Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to respond to the report by communicating directly with the Holy See.

“In due time, the Holy See will make its determinations. It is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed.

“After what has been a long and painful process for so many, it is important that a just and authoritative finding be made.

“Only then can the process of rebuilding the Church community in Broome, begun under the leadership of Bishop Michael Morrissey, the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese, continue to make progress and bring healing.”

Bishop Saunders was ordained for the Diocese of Broome in 1976 and made Bishop of Broome in 1996, with almost 50 years spent in the Kimberley mission.

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