The Vatican is investigating allegations of sexual abuse and misuse of Church funds by the former Bishop of Broome, whose diocese covers a vast area of Western Australia’s tropical north and includes a large number of Aboriginal communities.
A 200-page Church-commissioned report alleges 73-year-old Christopher Saunders sexually abused four Aboriginal youths and misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in Church and charity funds attempting to groom dozens more.
The Church investigation, brought under the Vatican’s Vos Estis Lux Mundi inquiry powers, was overseen by the Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge and conducted by experienced former police detectives.
The Vatican report, leaked to 7News network in September, described Saunders as a “sexual predator” who sought to “prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys”, identifying four likely victims and finding he may have groomed a further 67 boys and men.
The network reported that Saunders, was well known for throwing so-called “Bunga-Bunga” parties – where only male guests were invited.
According to 7News, the Vatican report found allegations against Saunders dating back to shortly after he was ordained a priest in Sydney, about 50 years ago, and that he developed a method of grooming indigenous males by plying them with gifts of alcohol, telephones, cash and travel.
It also claimed the report found Saunders spent about A$4,000 per month on alcohol, and that he had five bank accounts which at one point held about A$3 million and had purchased a boat for A$70,000 and several cars.
Saunders resigned his see in 2021 after an initial police investigation was made public. He has strenuously denied allegations and declined invitations to be interviewed by Church investigators.
The report was completed in April and sent to Rome. Six months later, no decision has been made on the future of Bishop Saunders.
In a statement, the Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the allegations against Saunders were “very serious and deeply distressing” and it was proper they were thoroughly investigated.
“We will respect the enduring confidential nature of this process by not commenting on specific allegations that have been raised,” he said.
“In due time, the Holy See will make its determinations. It is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed.”
West Australian Police have requested a copy of the Vatican’s report. They had already conducted two inquiries into the allegations around Saunders, but prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him.
Since the acquittal of Cardinal George Pell in the country’s High Court in 2020, Bishop Saunders is the highest-ranked figure in the Australian Church to face a sex crimes investigation.