Accused Australian bishop may return to ministry

Tensions are building over whether the Vatican will allow a bishop accused of sexual misconduct and bullying to return to his diocese.

The move is seen to possibly setting an international precedent.

Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders was sent on a six-month sabbatical in November.

The ABC reports that the Vatican has used this time to assess an internal investigation’s findings into his running of the remote northern diocese.

But the report, which has not been made public, did not look at reports of sexual misconduct rather focussing on financial practices and Bishop Saunders’ management of staff, including allegations of bullying.

The 71-year-old bishop has overseen the Broome diocese since 1995, and he denies any wrongdoing.

He has not been charged with any offence.

One of his most loyal and long-serving parish priests has gone public with his concerns about the situation.

Matt Digges was a child when he first met Saunders and later served under him as a priest for more than two decades.

“It seems to me that the best way forward would be for Bishop Saunders to cut ties and retire or resign.

“He is already approaching retirement age and is, we understand, in poor health, Diggs said.

“I think that would be a win-win for everybody because the longer this drags on, everybody is losing out.”

Since news of the investigations became public, six of the 12 parish priests had left the Broome diocese.

Many of the positions remain vacant.

The case has highlighted the ambiguity in church protocols around how it responds to allegations of sexual misconduct made against clerics who are as senior as bishops.

While priests who have been accused are immediately stood down, bishops can only be removed by order of the Pope.

It took the Vatican more than two years to arrange for a sabbatical requiring Bishop Saunders to leave the remote Aboriginal community parishes where the allegations originated.

The saga has caused sadness among older Aboriginal parishioners in the Kimberley who grew up on Catholic missions.

They have known Bishop Saunders since he arrived in the region as a fresh-faced parish priest in the 1970s.

Yawuru and Karrajari elder Jimmy Edgar said loyalty to the church was waning. This was due to scandals overseas, and Aboriginal people reflecting on the church’s practice of prohibiting cultural practices during the mission era.

“The Catholic Church gave me lots of good things in my upbringing and we used to go to church every day,” Mr Edgar said.

“But it’s not very nice for people like myself to go to church anymore.”

Edgar did not want to comment on Saunders specifically. But he said locals were keen to know whether he would be returning.

“People have different views about it,” he said.

“It could end up being a fresh change and people could go back to church again, I suppose.”

The Vatican has not commented on the situation since announcing Bishop Saunders would be temporarily leaving the region.




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