Police want Vatican report into Broome Bishop’s sex abuse

bishop saunders

A Vatican report into sex abuse allegations against Christopher Saunders, the former Bishop of Broome, has sparked renewed interest from the Western Australian police.

The police have twice investigated Saunders (73) and not charged him, and are now calling on Church authorities to allow them to see the report.

The Vatican report identifies Saunders as a “predator” who sexually assaulted four Aboriginal men and boys and groomed dozens more.

It also says Saunders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on grooming his victims by plying them with gifts of alcohol, phones, cash and travel.

Besides slamming Saunders’ behaviour, the Vatican report is also critical of the two West Australian police investigations into the bishop’s alleged offending and their decision not to charge him.

The Vatican noted the first complaint about Saunders was made in 2018. Police began investigating and by March 2020 Saunders had stood aside from his long-standing role as head of the diocese.

In 2020, Australia’s Channel 7 heard about the investigation. It later reported that Saunders ordered his staff to collect and burn hundreds of office documents, files and photographs after the abuse allegations went to air.

In May 2021, just over a year after Saunders stood aside, the police decided not to press criminal charges against him. They said the ages of the victims at the time of the alleged acts could not be substantiated through evidence at that time.

It is an outcome that did not impress the Vatican investigators who say the police “mishandled” the inquiry for various reasons.

These included “limited resourcing and competing priorities, a lack of will by senior management to tackle the systemic issues, a strained ­relationship between police and the Kimberley Aboriginal Legal Service, and evidence gaps relating to establishing the ages of the victims at the time of the alleged offences”.

Australian Catholic bishops respond

In a statement this week, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference described the allegations as “very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making the allegations.”

It said the independent report had been provided to the Holy See, with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith continuing the investigation.

Conference president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe explained the Church’s investigation into allegations against Saunders couldn’t start until the Western Australia Police Force inquiries had concluded in 2021.

In 2022, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge oversaw the Church’s investigation for the Vatican.

Costelloe entrusted the process 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 … Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to …[communicate] 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.”

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