Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]
February 10, 2024
By Erin Parke
- In short: There are calls for the Vatican to speed up its decision on the future of an Australian bishop whose house has been raided by police for a second time.
- Former Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders is being investigated following allegations of sexual assault. He denies any wrongdoing.
- What’s next: Former Kimberley priest Father John Purnell says the Vatican should act on an independent report into the former bishop, which categorised him as a “predator”.
Father John Purnell is optimistic by nature.
“I’m not really sure why this particular case is taking so long,” he says.
“But I do have faith that Pope Francis will resolve this situation.”
It’s been more than four years since Father Purnell accompanied a young Indigenous man to a police station in the remote Kimberley region to make a statement.
The young man alleged he had been sexually assaulted by well-known figure Bishop Christopher Saunders, who for decades had headed the vast Catholic Diocese of Broome.
The years since have been a whirlwind of denials, confidential reports, accusations and speculation.
Bishop Saunders has maintained his innocence and denied any wrongdoing.
But even the senior Catholic hierarchy in Australia has expressed — in its careful, coded way — its impatience for the situation to be resolved.
“The allegations against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders … are very serious and deeply distressing,” Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe wrote in a statement in September 2023.
“Bishop Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to respond to [the church investigation] by communicating directly with the Holy See.
“In due time, the Holy See will make its determinations.
“It is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed.”
For several years, two parallel processes have played out; the police response to the allegations, and the Catholic Church’s own internal investigation.
The police investigation preceded the church process, but was furthered by church investigations that uncovered additional allegations against the bishop.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of activity on the police side, with child abuse squad detectives flying from Perth to search the church-owned property where Bishop Sanders has been living.
Long-running issues in diocese
Father John Purnell left the Kimberley at about the time the allegations became public in 2020. Since then, he has lived in New South Wales.
- 1976: Christopher Saunders is ordained a priest within the remote Diocese of Broome, which covers the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia
- 1995: Then-Father Saunders is named Bishop of the diocese, overseeing nine remote parishes
- Late 2018: WA Police commence Operation White Plane, investigating allegations of sexual misconduct made by several young men
- February 2020: Allegations of sexual misconduct against Bishop Saunders are made public. The bishop strenuously denies any wrongdoing, and rejects the allegations
- March 2020: Bishop Saunders stands aside voluntarily, but continues holding mass, conducting funerals and living within the Broome diocese in church-owned houses
- May 2021: WA Director of Public Prosecutions assesses the police file and decides not to lay charges
- August 2021: Christopher Saunders resigns as Bishop of Broome
- February 2022: The ABC reveals the Vatican has commenced a ‘Vos Estis’ investigation, the first of its type in Australia. A private investigation firm is commissioned to conduct inquiry
- February 2023: A 200-page Vos Estis report is submitted to the Vatican
- September 2023: Vatican sources leak the report to the media
- December 2023 WA Police confirm they have commenced a fresh investigation into the sexual assault allegations
- January 2024: Bishop Saunders is questioned by detectives in Perth, at the same time as police execute search warrants at his residence in Broome
Father Purnell became outspoken out of frustration at what he felt was a slow and secretive response by police and the Catholic Church; a failure to act swiftly to safeguard young people in the remote Kimberley region.
He is limited in what he can say publicly about the case, due to defamation laws and the ongoing criminal investigation.
But he says he maintains faith in Pope Francis and the Catholic hierarchy.
“I’m still really hopeful that we will get a decision on this soon.
“No matter what happens with the police investigation, the church has its own processes and it needs to honour that.
“I know that in Rome things move very, very slowly.
“It’s just sad that the longer this goes on, the more damage is done to the church’s reputation. They don’t seem to realise that.”
Within the Broome diocese there’s concern about the impact on the local community from the uncertainty.
The Catholic Church retains significant influence within former mission communities such as Balgo, Beagle Bay and Kalumburu.
There’s been shock and distress among Aboriginal elders as word of the allegations spread along the Kimberley grapevine.
Meanwhile, the remote geography, cultural differences and stigma around homosexuality and sexual abuse has created a challenging environment for investigators.
Christopher Saunders retains the title of Emeritus Bishop.
He’s understood to have left the diocese in late 2023, but has not vacated the Piggott Way property that is the focus of police investigations.