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Australian bishop attends bail hearing over sex abuse charges

Bishop Christopher Saunders appeared in Australian court July 8 for a bail hearing, as the former bishop of the Diocese of Broome awaits trial on 28 criminal charges, including alleged sexual abuse.

Bishop Christopher Saunders. Image via ABC/YouTube.

Saunders, 74, attended court Monday in Broome, his former diocese, after prosecutors filed for a change to his bail conditions. 

In a hearing last month, prosecutors argued that the bishop’s bail conditions, which prohibit contact with alleged victims and witnesses, should be changed, to include additional possible witnesses to the case, and to bar the bishop from returning to Broome to prevent accidental encounters.

Magistrate Deen Potter ruled on that motion July 8, deciding that none of the extra names appearing on the potential witness list appeared “especially vulnerable,” and Saunders’ bail conditions would remain unchanged — with the judge even allowing for the possibility of accidental encounters between them and the bishop in the town.

Saunders was arrested in February following a January police raid on his former residence in the Diocese of Broome, carried out by Child Abuse Squad detectives.

The bishop led the Diocese of Broome in Western Australia until 2021, when he resigned citing “ill health” amid allegations of sexual misconduct and grooming against young Aboriginal men. 

The bishop’s resignation followed a decision to step back from governance of the diocese in 2020, after 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.

The police investigation which led to the raid and the bishop’s arrest came after Church authorities handed over a 200-page investigation conducted into Saunders alleged misconduct, ordered by the Vatican in 2022, after a separate police investigation had been closed the previous year due to lack of evidence.

In a statement at the time of Suanders’ arrest, Australian bishops’ conference president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth said that “It is right and proper, and indeed necessary, that all allegations be thoroughly investigated,” and promised that the Church would “cooperate fully with police and take every necessary step to avoid any actions which may compromise the integrity and autonomy of the police investigation.”

Saunders now faces more than 20 criminal charges related to alleged sexual abuse, including two counts of rape and 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault; he faces several other charges related to the unlicensed possession of a firearm.

The sexual abuse charges relate to alleged victimization of young Aboriginal men in towns throughout the diocese between 2008 and 2016.

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In April, Suander’s former secretary told The Pillar that she had been ordered by the bishop to make “hush money” payments to the bishop’s alleged victims during her time working for him.

“There was a list of names on the wall in the secretary's office with victims, potential victims, and their bank account details,” Cherrille Quilty told The Pillar. “It was so urgent that I pay them. It wasn't for odd jobs, I can tell you that now. It was hush money. One of the first victims that came forward was the one that I paid most frequently and it was to shut him up.”

“You didn't dare ask why [Saunders] was paying them. Didn't dare,” Quilty said. “He wasn't the sort of person you would ever cross or ask him anything.”

Leaked portions of the report produced by the Church’s investigation, which triggered the renewed police action against the bishop last year, identified a pattern of behavior by Saunders consistent with grooming dozens of young men over a period of decades. 

According to media reports on the leaked text, one man told Vatican-commissioned investigators that Saunders had employed him to do gardening work at his residence and offered him the use of his shower afterwards. According to the alleged victim, the bishop then climbed into the shower with him.

“I was scared. He was a big fella and I was just a teenager at the time,” he told investigators, and that the bishop subsequently started showering him with gifts of cash, phones, cigarettes and alcohol.

Another man testified that Saunders threw so-called “bunga bunga parties,” to which only male guests were invited and at which he saw the bishop ask attendees to strip, and kiss and grope young guests. 

“The bishop has been variously described by witnesses as … a sexual predator that seeks to prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys,” the report said.

“That independent report has been provided to the Holy See, with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith continuing the investigation,” the bishops’ conference said in September 2023, while promising continued cooperation with police.

However, the Australian bishops’ conference has faced questions about its public statement’s related to Saunders, and the extent to which Vatican restrictions on the bishop have been observed.

The Australian bishops’ conference previously said in public statements that the Church investigation concerned “alleged canonical crimes, as defined by Vos estis lux mundi, and alleged breaches of the Church’s Integrity in Ministry protocols,” and was overseen by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane but carried out by independent investigators.

But statements issued by conference in September 2023, and carried by the official Vatican media portal, also stated that the accusations against Bishop Saunders did not concern minors and that the investigation did not identify any alleged or potential victims under the age of 18, even while Saunders has now been criminally charged with multiple sexual offenses against a person under 18 — the canonical age under which a person is considered a minor in sexual abuse cases.

It is unclear whether the Australian criminal investigation, which according to police was triggered by the Vos estis file, discovered new allegations unknown to Church authorities, or if they drew different conclusions from the same evidence.

Following his resignation and the opening of the Vos estis investigation, Saunders was ordered by the Vatican to reside outside the diocese, a directive he ignored, continuing to live in a Church owned house in Broome and to exercise considerable influence over diocesan affairs.

As of December 2023, Saunders was still listed as the “responsible person” for nine Catholic charities in his former diocese, several of which are affiliated with local parishes.

Saunders has insisted he is innocent of any misconduct. The next court hearing is set for September.

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