Pope Francis accepts resignation of Australian bishop

Australian bishop resignation

The Vatican has accepted the resignation of a long-serving Australian Catholic Bishop, leaving the future of its investigation into his conduct unclear.

A statement released overnight by the Holy See read, “The Holy Father has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Broome, Australia, presented by Bishop Christopher Alan Saunders”.

Saunders’ departure ends a nearly three-year period of turmoil within the diocese.

The 71-year-old Bishop’s final 18 months in office have been marred by controversy and questions over his conduct.

He voluntarily stood aside in March last year after Kimberley Priest John Purnell went public with his concerns over the Church’s lack of action on allegations of sexual misconduct against Saunders.

Saunders strenuously denied any wrongdoing and WA Police decided not to proceed with criminal charges after an extended investigation ended in May this year.

The Vatican began its own inquiry into Saunders’ administration of the diocese, led by former Bishop of Wollongong Peter Ingham, and chose to send Saunders on a six-month sabbatical outside of the Kimberley.

Bishop Ingham’s investigation focused on financial practices, and Saunders’ management of staff, including allegations of bullying. It did not concern the allegations of sexual misconduct.

The findings of Ingham’s investigation were submitted to the Holy See last year but were not made public.

Catholic Professional Standards were alerted to the allegations against Saunders within days of them being reported to WA Police in October 2018.

However, the Church chose not to take action until March last year, just hours before news reports of the police investigation were due to go to air.

The slow process left police and some diocese staff privately appalled the Church had allowed the bishop to remain physically present in  Kimberley. Nevertheless, he continued to preside at mass and other religious services.

Six of the dioceses’ 12 parish priests have departed since the allegations were made public. This has left many key positions vacant.

Former Kimberley priest Matt Digges, who served under Saunders for more than two decades, said the process highlighted the need for the Church to significantly reform its protocols for how it responds to allegations against senior clerics.

“It has shown that the church is lacking in oversight, mentorship and regulation of its most critical leaders, it’s bishops,” Mr Digges told the ABC earlier this year.

In June, Broome Monsignor Paul Boyers told Broome church-goers that the investigation was ongoing.

The resignation of the Australian bishop has thrown the future of the investigation into doubt.



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