Vatican orders investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against retired Broome bishop Christopher Saunders

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

February 3, 2022

By Erin Parke

Documents obtained by the ABC reveal the Vatican has ordered a fresh investigation into retired bishop Christopher Saunders under a protocol set up by Pope Francis to deal with sexual abuse cover-ups.

The correspondence, written by a senior manager within a Catholic Church agency, states that Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge has been appointed to conduct the Vos Estis Lux Mundi inquiry.

Pope Francis established the investigative protocol in 2019 to combat sexual abuse and increase the accountability for senior clerics like bishops.

An inquiry can be triggered by allegations of the sexual abuse of children or vulnerable adults, the possession of child abuse material, or the covering-up of sexual abuse allegations.

It is believed to be the first time it has been used in Australia.

‘Significant development’

Bishop Saunders resigned last year after a long police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct was closed without charges being laid.

The allegations against him were made by young Aboriginal men from remote towns and bush communities in the West Kimberley region.

They were interviewed by WA police who are understood to have provided their findings to the Catholic Church when the file was closed.

Bishop Saunders, 72, has previously denied any wrongdoing and his supporters have called for the matter to be laid to rest.

Since resigning in August, Bishop Saunders has continued to live in church accommodation in Broome, despite calls from his critics for him to be removed from the region.

Neither the Vatican, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference nor Bishop Saunders have responded to requests for comment.

Retired lawyer and author Kieran Tapsell, who has written extensively on Canon Law, says the Vos Estis inquiry is a significant development.

“It’s a protocol which tries to clarify and create a procedure for dealing with a variety of offences under Canon Law,” he said.

“Vos Estis is a recent document … and it still seems to be a confidential process.

“That doesn’t stop them from publishing [the findings], but there’s no requirement for them to publish.

“So whether or not people can have confidence in it will depend on transparency.”

First Australian use

Vos Estis Lux Mundi is nearing the end of its three-year trial period.

It was set up to try to hold bishops to account for abuses of power and the mishandling of abuse allegations.

The nine-page Vos Estis guidelines released by the Holy See in 2019 state that the investigator must report on their progress every 30 days and submit a final report within three months.

It also specifies that the cleric under investigation is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

It is believed to have been enacted less than a dozen times internationally, with six confirmed Vos Estis investigations into bishops in the United States.

Archbishop Coleridge, who has overseen the Brisbane archdiocese for 10 years, has not responded to questions from the ABC about the progress of the inquiry or the timeline for its completion.

‘Welcome news’

The news of the inquiry has been welcomed by priests and former employees of Bishop Saunders who lodged complaints about his conduct.

Father John Purnell worked under Bishop Saunders in the Diocese of Broome, and was the first to go public with his concerns about the veteran cleric’s behaviour.

“After three drawn-out years it’s welcome news that Rome and the Holy Father have realised that a church process was necessary and is underway to discover the truth,” he said.

“Uncovering the truth is precisely what Vos Estis is about, and hopefully this process will lead to justice and healing.”