Child abuse investigators in Australia raided a Church property Monday, as part of an investigation into the former Bishop of Broome.
The property, a house, was until last year the residence of Bishop Christopher Saunders, who resigned as bishop of the Broome diocese in 2021 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and grooming against young Aboriginal men.
“Child Abuse Squad detectives are in Broome as part of an ongoing investigation into historic child sex offences,” a Western Australia Police spokesperson said in a statement, but declined to give details.
Saunders stepped aside 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 following year he resigned as diocesan bishop at the age of 71, citing “ill health.”
At the time of Saunders’ resignation, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Michael Morrissey of the Diocese of Geraldton to serve as apostolic administrator, a post in which he continues.
Police closed a previous investigation into the allegations against the bishop in May 2021, due to lack of evidence. However, a separate canonical investigation 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.
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 to Saunders throwing 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.”