Catholic bishop subject of Vatican investigation no longer in control of Broome charities

The Guardian [London, England]

January 12, 2024

By Tory Shepherd

Christopher Saunders, who has denied accusations he sexually assaulted young Aboriginal men, was responsible for nine charities

The Catholic bishop Christopher Saunders, who is accused of sexually assaulting and grooming young Aboriginal men, has been removed as the person responsible for nine Broome diocese charities, records show.

Saunders, who denies the accusations, which are alleged to have occurred during his almost five-decade career, stood aside as the bishop of Broome in 2020 and Pope Francis accepted his resignation in 2021. He is now described as “emeritus” bishop of Broome.

A Western Australian police investigation between 2018 and 2020 did not find enough evidence to lay criminal charges against Saunders, a decision made in consultation with the director of public prosecutions. A separate Vatican investigation, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, was completed in April 2023. It has been given to WA police and Seven News has reported that it alleged Saunders used church and charity funds to groom young men.

In October, Guardian Australia revealed that Saunders was still listed as the person responsible for nine charities. Most, as basic religious charities, do not have to report their finances to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission, but one charity, the Kimberley Native Mission Fund (KNMF), did.

It brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars and in 2015 it had assets worth $1.72m and an income of more than $250,000. Its expenses are mostly listed as “other” or administration, with a fraction for unnamed charitable works or donations.

KNMF’s governing document is from the time of the stolen generations and is a proposal for a charity for “native missions”. There are no details of its activities online.

A spokesperson for the diocese gave some details of more recent spending, saying the fund paid for a group of local First Nations people to travel to and attend the Natsic conference in Townsville in 2022, for two youths to attend World Youth Day in Portugal in 2023 and for emergency travel costs for a grandmother to be with a grandchild who was receiving medical treatment in Perth.

The Geraldton bishop, Michael Morrissey, has been overseeing the Broome diocese since Saunders left and is now listed with the ACNC as the responsible person for those charities.

Priest John Purnell worked with Saunders in the Broome diocese and said he had never heard of KNMF. He initially alerted police to allegations about Saunders after being approached by an alleged victim. Purnell has called for Saunders to be defrocked and said delays in action caused pain.

“Let’s hope this year is the year that something’s done. [The alleged victims] would be frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned and I assume many would be angry,” Purnell said.

He said seeing no outcome would be “like a kick in the teeth” for the Aboriginal people who had come forward.

According to Seven News, the Vatican report alleges Saunders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on alcohol, cigarettes, bus and air fares. It alleges four sexual acts were identified and an additional 67 youths or men may have been subjected to sexual or grooming behaviours.

WA police said at the time the Vatican report was handed over they had no comment and in a statement on Wednesday said they had “nothing further to add at this time”.

New South Wales police said they do not “have any information on hand”. They are being assisted by the Sydney diocese over allegations of an incident at Clovelly in 1976.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said last year it would not comment on specific allegations and that Saunders, “who has maintained his innocence”, could respond to the report by communicating directly with the Holy See.

“In due time, the Holy See will make its determinations,” the conference president, Timothy Costelloe, said. The Broome diocese said on Wednesday it had no further information on the matter.

Guardian Australia has contacted Saunders and the Vatican for comment.

 In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International