Documents Reveal Church Stayed Quiet on Sexual Misconduct Allegations against Broome Bishop for Almost a Year
By Erin Parke
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
July 4, 2020
|Bishop Christopher Saunders stood aside in March.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)|
The Catholic Church was told of sexual misconduct allegations against a Western Australian bishop nearly a year before it took action, according to new documents obtained by the ABC.
Bishop Christopher Saunders, who has overseen the vast Diocese of Broome for 25 years, remains voluntarily stood aside amidst an ongoing WA Police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
No charges have been laid and Bishop Saunders has previously denied all accusations of inappropriate behaviour.
In an email response to questions from the ABC, Bishop Saunders' lawyer Seamus Rafferty said it would be inappropriate for the Bishop to make any public statement, given the active investigation.
The case became public in March, when the Vatican announced a separate internal inquiry into the running of the diocese, which covers the remote parishes of the Kimberley region.
But correspondence from as early as April 2019 showed the Church was repeatedly told by multiple individuals of the allegations and urged to remove the 70-year-old from his post.
A response sent to one whistleblower in December last year acknowledged the concern, saying the priority was to "manage any ongoing risks" while not alerting Bishop Saunders to the ongoing police investigation.
Travelling through region
There is growing angst about Bishop Saunders' continued presence in the region, despite having committed to standing aside for the duration of the investigation.
The decision by the Bishop to voluntarily stand aside was announced on March 10, when news broke of the police investigation and the Vatican announced its inquiry.
But Bishop Saunders remains in Broome, living between two church-owned properties.
The ABC has confirmed the Bishop has continued in many of his official capacities, including conducting the funeral service of a person in Broome in late June.
The ABC understands he has further funeral services scheduled.
The Bishop has a loyal following amongst parishioners, and some are requesting he be involved despite the commitment to stand aside.
In recent weeks he has also travelled across the Kimberley in a church vehicle, visiting several towns.
It has prompted at least one complaint to church authorities about the Bishop apparently flouting the agreement to stand aside at a critical time for the police investigation.
The ABC contacted local, state and national church representatives in relation to these matters; all either declined to comment or did not respond.
Time of change
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has announced an overhaul of how it responds to and prevents abuse in Australia.
A new church body is expected to be up and running early next year, replacing several different agencies currently dealing with abuse claims and prevention work.
In a letter to The Australian newspaper this week, Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the new body would operate independently and oversee a new national protocol for handling complaints of sexual abuse.
"The decision taken is not a diminishment of the Church's commitment to child protection and safeguarding," he wrote.
"Rather than axing a watchdog, the Catholic Church in Australia has opted for a more coordinated service that will avoid duplication."