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Australian police arrest former Broome bishop in child abuse probe

This story is developing and has been updated.

Local police in Western Australia arrested Bishop Christopher Saunders, the former leader of the Diocese of Broome, at his home on Wednesday, Feb. 21. 

Bishop Christopher Saunders. Pillar file photo.

On Thursday morning, authorities confirmed the charges facing Saunders after the 72-year old bishop was taken into custody by officers of Western Australia Police’s anti-child abuse squad, and following a raid on his former residence last month.

WAP officers said they seized boxes of documents and other evidence “as part of an ongoing investigation into historic child sex offenses,” and confirmed the bishop is charged with more than 19 counts of sexual abuse related crimes.

The bishop has been released on bail and is due in court for an initial hearing on Feb. 22.


Saunders resigned from office as bishop of the Broome diocese in 2021 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.

Now he is charged with two counts of rape, 14 counts of indecent assualt, and three counts of a person in authority dealing indeecently with a person aged 16-18 years old.

Police closed a previous investigation into the allegations against the bishop in May 2021, due to lack of evidence. However, a separate canonical investigation undertaken by Church authorities was then initiated the following year into “alleged canonical crimes, as defined by Vos estis lux mundi, and alleged breaches of the Church’s Integrity in Ministry protocols,” according to the Australian bishops’ conference. 

The canonical investigation was overseen by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane but carried out by independent investigators.

After requests from local law enforcement, a 200-page report was handed to police last year, parts of which were leaked to local media, and detailed allegations of sexual misconduct against four Aboriginal young men, several of them teenagers though, according to Church statements, all over 18 and not “minors” in canon or civil law

After the report was handed to police, as Western Australia Police spokesman said that “If further information comes to light [as a result of the report], police will investigate.”

The report also identified a pattern of behavior consistent with grooming against dozens of other young men over a period of decades.

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According to media reports on the leaked text, one man told the Vatican-ordered investigation 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.

At the time the report’s findings were made public, bishops’ conference president Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth called the accusations against Saunders “very serious and deeply distressing - especially for those making the allegations.”

Despite taking a six month voluntary leave of absence from the diocese in 2020, after his resignation was accepted by Pope Francis the following year Saunders remained in the diocese and, according to local sources, continued to exert influence over the day-to-day running of the diocese.

In the decree opening the Vos estis investigation, Saunders was directed by the Holy See to reside outside the diocese, yet he remained in the Church-owned house in Broome, raided by police Jan. 15, until late last year. 

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

Saunders has insisted he is innocent of any misconduct. 

In a statement last year, following the Vos estis report being handed to police, the Australian bishops’ conference issued a statement saying that “in due time, the Holy See will make its determinations.” 

“It is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed,” the bishops said.

“After what has been a long and painful process for so many, it is important that a just and authoritative finding be made. 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.”

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