St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. / Credit: Shutterstock
CNA Staff, Sep 19, 2023 / 16:50 pm (CNA).
The Holy See is investigating a former Australian bishop after receiving a 200-page report alleging the bishop sexually assaulted four indigenous youths and may have used hundreds of thousands of dollars in Church and charity funds in attempts to groom 67 others.
Former bishop Christopher Saunders of the Diocese of Broome, who is the subject of the investigation, stepped down from his role in 2020 amid sexual abuse allegations. The Vatican, which commissioned the independent report, received the findings in April but did not release them to the public. The report was leaked to 7NEWS in Australia, which published excerpts of the findings.
According to the excerpts, the report found that “the bishop has been variously described by witnesses as … a sexual predator that seeks to prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys” and “during the investigation, four victims of sexual (delictual) acts were identified.”
The report added that 67 “additional Aboriginal boys and men were also identified as persons that may have been subjected to delictual acts or grooming behaviors by Bishop Saunders.”
According to 7NEWS, the report found that allegations against Saunders date back to just shortly after he was ordained a priest in Sydney, about 50 years ago, and that he developed a method of grooming Indigenous males by giving gifts of alcohol, cash, phones, phone credit, hotels, and air and bus travel.
The report found, according to 7NEWS, that Saunders spent about $4,000 per month on alcohol for the youths. The report discovered that he had five bank accounts, which held about $3 million at one point and purchased a $70,000 boat and several cars.
Police launched an investigation into Saunders in 2018 after a man came forward with sexual abuse allegations, but after a two-year investigation, the prosecutors did not find enough evidence against the bishop and declined to bring charges. The Holy See’s investigation began in 2022 and is being led by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The dicastery’s investigation is still ongoing.
The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, said in a statement that the Holy See will make a determination “in due time” and “it is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed.” He said the Church’s investigation could not begin until the police finished its inquiry into the allegations.
“We will respect the enduring confidential nature of this process by not commenting on specific allegations that have been raised,” Costelloe said. “Bishop Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to respond to the report by communicating directly with the Holy See.”
Costelloe added that the allegations “are very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making the allegations” and that “it is right and proper for them to be thoroughly investigated.”
“After what has been a long and painful process for so many, it is important that a just and authoritative finding be made,” Costelloe said. “Only then can the process of rebuilding the Church community in Broome, begun under the leadership of Bishop Michael Morrissey, the apostolic administrator of the diocese, continue to make progress and bring healing.”
The Holy See’s investigation was “entrusted to an experienced and independent specialist investigations organization,” according to Castelloe. It was overseen by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
There were 102 witnesses identified in the report, 30 of whom were formally interviewed, according to 7NEWS.