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Charges against Australian bishop raise questions about ‘Vos estis’ statement

Details of the child abuse charges filed against retired Australian Bishop Christopher Saunders  raise questions about 2023 assurances from the country's bishops' conference, which said that a Church investigation into the bishop did not include allegations concerning minors.

Bishop Christopher Saunders, who led the Diocese of Broome in Western Australia until 2021, faces more than 20 criminal charges related to alleged sexual abuse, including two counts of rape and 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault. 

Bishop Christopher Saunders. Image via ABC/YouTube.

The bishop was arrested Feb. 21 by members of Western Australia Police’s child abuse squad, but the full scope of the charges was not announced, after the bishop’s lawyers sought a judicial suppression order, arguing that local press coverage could bias his right to a fair trial.

On March 1, a judge lifted the order, ruling that a press gag was “not in the interests of justice,” and clearing the way for the full charges to be released to the public.

According to reports from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “the sexual assault charges relate to one complainant, with the alleged offending commencing in 2008 when the complainant was aged 16 or 17 years of age.”

ABC also reported the bishop is charged with three counts of indecent dealings with a child.

Those details raise questions about the Church’s previous statements about an investigation into Saunders’ conduct. 

The Australian bishops’ conference issued a public statement last year claiming that allegations against Saunders did not concern minors and that a Vos estis investigation into the bishop did not identify any victims who were minors. 


Saunders’ arrest Feb. 21 followed a January police raid on his former residence in the Diocese of Broome, carried out by Child Abuse Squad detectives.

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 police investigation had been closed the previous year due to lack of evidence.

In a statement released last week, 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.”

The Australian bishops’ conference has 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.

Leaked portions of the report did identify a pattern of Saunders’ behavior 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.

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.

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 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.

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