Bishop Christopher Saunders ordered to leave the Kimberley as Catholic Church confirms investigation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

September 25, 2022

By Erin Parke

The Catholic Church has confirmed it is undertaking an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against resigned Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders.

Key points:

  • Bishop Saunders has strongly denied the allegations against him
  • A police investigation was closed last year without charges being laid
  • Bishop Saunders has been ordered to leave the diocese while the investigation is underway 

It has also ordered that the 72-year-old leave the outback diocese where he has been a priest and bishop for more than 50 years.

In a rare statement released on Saturday night, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said a Vos Estis Lux Mundi investigation was underway.

“The Holy See has initiated a canonical investigation into former Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders, with Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane appointed to oversee the investigation,” the statement said.

“Bishop Saunders stood aside … after media reports that Western Australia Police had begun an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

“He strongly denies the allegations.”

The ABC first reported in February that the inquiry had commenced, after obtaining leaked documents confirming the process had begun. 

It is unclear why the Catholic church has chosen to comment publicly now.

To ‘pursue truth and justice’

Archbishop Coleridge said the inquiry had commenced after WA Police closed their investigation without laying charges.

“I have assembled a team of people who are highly qualified to conduct this investigation in a thorough way, mindful of the particular needs of the people of the diocese of Broome,” he said.

“Their job will be to gather, as best they can, all relevant information to pursue truth and justice for everyone involved.”

It is believed to be the first time a Vos Estis Lux Mundi inquiry has been conducted in Australia.

The accountability protocol was introduced by Pope Francis in 2019 and guides the response to allegations made against senior clerics such as bishops.

The Vos Estis guidelines set out a three-month investigation period, but an extension has been granted in the case of Bishop Saunders.

Bishop told to leave

A pre-prepared statement was read to parishioners who attended mass at Broome Cathedral on Saturday night.

They were told that Bishop Saunders, who has continued to live at a church-owned property in Broome, had been asked to leave.

“The Holy See has also authorised Archbishop Coleridge to issue a decree stipulating that Bishop Saunders is to reside outside the diocese of Broome for the duration of the investigation,” the statement said.

“That decree has been issued.”

The decision to physically remove Bishop Saunders from the community came nearly four years after the first sexual misconduct report was made to police by a man who lived within the vast Broome diocese.

Police commenced an investigation codenamed Operation Whiteplane but the file bounced between detectives in Broome, Kununurra and Perth before being closed without charges being laid.

Bishop Saunders remained the senior cleric for the region, only standing aside in March 2020 when the allegations become public.

He resigned a year later after more than 50 years serving as a priest and bishop in the Kimberley region.

Bishop Michael Morrissey, from the Geraldton diocese, has since been overseeing the eight Kimberley parishes.

No police charges have been laid against Bishop Saunders.