Australian court reveals abuse charges against bishop

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

March 13, 2024

By Mark Bowling

Christopher Saunders faces multiple sexual assault charges, although his lawyer has strenuously denied them all.

A court in Western Australia has lifted a suppression order in a criminal case against the former Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders, revealing details of the sexual abuse allegations against him.

The 74-year-old served for decades a priest and then bishop in the Diocese of Broome, whose vast area covers the tropical north of Western Australia and includes remote aboriginal townships and communities in the Kimberley region.

After a long-running police investigation, Saunders faces multiple sexual assault charges, although his lawyer has strenuously denied them all.

Saunders was arrested on 21 February and released on bail. At his first court appearance on 1 March, a judge lifted a suppression order to allow the publication of the charges against him.

He will face 26 charges including two counts of sexual penetration without consent, three counts of indecent dealings with a child and 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported the sexual assault charges relate to one complainant. The court heard the alleged offences began in 2008 when the complainant was aged 16 or 17, and occurred at several different locations across the Kimberley over a period of five years.

Saunders was ordained a priest in Broome in 1976 and became bishop of the diocese in 1996. He often worked and preached in the region’s remote Aboriginal communities.

In recent years, Bishop Saunders has been the subject of multiple police investigations, as well a separate canonical investigation undertaken by Church authorities.

He resigned from office as bishop in 2021 citing “ill health” amid allegations of sexual misconduct and grooming against young Aboriginal men. 

Accusations surfaced that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of Church funds on gifts for vulnerable young men, including cash, phones, alcohol and travel. In May 2021 police closed an investigation due to lack of evidence.

In 2022, Church authorities initiated a separate investigation into “alleged canonical crimes”, as defined by Vos estis lux mundi, and alleged breaches of the Church’s “Integrity in Ministry” protocols. 

The Church investigation yielded a 200-page report, produced for the Vatican.

West Australian police requested and received a copy of the Church report, parts of which were leaked to local media, and detailed allegations of sexual misconduct against four Aboriginal young men, several of them teenagers.

The leaked portions of the report suggested a pattern of behaviour by Saunders consistent with grooming dozens of young men over a period of decades. 

Australian Church authorities have maintained that allegations against Saunders in the file submitted to the Vatican did not “concern minors and that the investigation did not identify any alleged or potential victims under the age of 18”. If the Church investigation had identified any minors, it would have been mandatory to report those cases to police.

“The Church understands and takes seriously its mandatory reporting obligations under Western Australian law”, said Bishop Michael Morrisey, who has served as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Broome since Saunders’ resignation.

Police have not revealed how they built their latest case against Bishop Saunders.

His arrest on February 21 followed a police raid in January on his former residence in Broome. Detectives from the Child Abuse Squad seized boxes of documents and other evidence.

Saunders remains on bail and is due to face court again in June.