The Vatican is reviewing the findings of a Church investigation into “very serious and deeply distressing” child sexual abuse allegations against a former Australian bishop, a Church official said Tuesday.
Christopher Saunders, now 73, resigned in 2021 as bishop of Broome, a diocese in Australia’s northwest outback larger than France but with a population of just 50 000 residents, after police announced they had dropped an investigation into a sex crime. He resigned a year earlier after the media reported the allegations.
The Church’s investigation into Saunders began last year, after the police investigation ended, said Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the highest body of national leadership of the Church.
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An investigation report, overseen by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, has been sent to the Vatican where the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith is continuing its investigation, Costelloe said.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the Vatican office that handles cases of abuse of minors by clergy, in accordance with the Church’s internal canon law .
“Bishop Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to respond to the report by communicating directly with the Holy See,” Costelloe said in a statement.
“In due course the Holy See will make its decision. We hope that this will not be unduly delayed,” Costelloe added.
Costelloe issued the statement after Australian broadcaster Seven Network reported the contents of the 200-page Vatican report on Monday evening.
The report reveals Saunders likely sexually assaulted four Indigenous youths and potentially groomed 67 other Indigenous youths and men, Seven reported.
Costelloe declined to comment on specific allegations.
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“The allegations against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, aired on Monday evening are very serious and deeply distressing, particularly for those who make them,” Costelloe said. “It is right and appropriate that they be fully investigated.”
West Australian police said they had requested a copy of the Vatican report.
“If further information emerges, police will investigate,” a police statement said.
Police conducted two investigations into the allegations against Saunders between 2018 and 2020. Prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to bring charges, police said.
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Saunders is now Australia’s most senior cleric accused of child abuse in a scandal that has enveloped the Church worldwide.
Cardinal George Pell was the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking cleric when he was convicted by an Australian court in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old altar boys at a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, while Pell was archbishop.
Pell spent 13 months in prison before the convictions were overturned on appeal. He maintained his innocence until his death in Rome in January.
Saunders began working in Broome as a deacon in 1975 and became bishop in 1996.