Pope replaces Broome bishop at the centre of alleged misconduct probe

WAtoday [East Perth, Western Australia]

August 29, 2021

By Marta Pascual Juanola

Pope Francis has replaced an Australian bishop who stepped down amid a Vatican investigation into reported allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Vatican said Francis accepted Bishop Christopher Alan Saunders’ resignation as head of the Broome diocese in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region and appointed Geraldton Bishop Michael Henry Morrissey to administer the sprawling Catholic diocese.

News police were investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against Bishop Saunders, one of Australia’s longest-serving bishops, first broke in March 2020.

The 18-month investigation was kicked off by allegations from a man in his 20s, who according to the ABC, confided in his local priest and agreed to report the information to police.

Bishop Saunders, who is well-known for his interest in Indigenous affairs and involvement in Aboriginal study groups, voluntarily stepped down from the role and has strongly denied the allegations.

In May, the ABC reported police and prosecutors had decided not to file criminal charges against the bishop, leaving the decision to allow Bishop Saunders to return to the Kimberley in the hands of the Vatican.

Bishop Saunders was first appointed to Broome as an administrator in 1989 and had more than 10,000 people under his care.

The Vatican, in keeping with its custom for announcing bishop resignations, did not cite a reason for replacing Bishop Saunders. At 71, he is four years younger than the age when the Vatican requires bishops to offer their resignations to the pontiff.

The decision follows an internal review by the church into Bishop Saunders’ management during which dozens of parishioners, staff, and volunteers were interviewed.

The probe, by former Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham, did not look into the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against the bishop to avoid interfering with the police.

Details of the case weren’t immediately available. Bishop Saunders has reportedly been on sabbatical.

After decades of sexual abuse scandals in many nations, Pope Francis has vowed to root out predator clergy.

Cases involving bishops who systematically covered up for such priests also led Francis to try to rebuild the collapsed trust of many faithful by pledging to bring accountability to the church hierarchy.