Saturday, September 30, 2023

Accused Australian bishop once testified to royal commission about Church’s ‘massive failure’ in addressing abuse

Vatican shares investigation into child abuse allegations against an  Australian bishop with police - The San Diego Union-Tribune

A Catholic leader now accused of assaulting or grooming dozens of young Aboriginal men once told a royal commission there was a “massive failure” in churches’ response to sexual abuse allegations.

A Vatican report leaked this week alleged that Broome bishop, Christopher Saunders, hosted “bunga bunga” parties, and spent church money on alcohol, cigarettes and mobile phones, according to Channel Seven

Saunders, who has stood down but has not been charged, denies the allegations.

According to Channel Seven, the report alleges four youths were sexually assaulted and another 67 potentially groomed. 

One reported allegation dates back to 1976, when Saunders was a priest in Clovelly, Sydney, although Saunders’ diocese biography lists him being in Western Australia from 1975 onwards.

In 2016, Saunders gave a witness statement to the royal commission, saying that there had only been one child sex abuse claim in his diocese, and that wasn’t followed up because the person was out of the country.

He then appeared at a public hearing in 2017 where he said the diocese was “very, very strict on any priest coming in”. 

Asked why he thought abuse had occurred in churches and what he thought of their response, he said: “I would agree that there has been a massive failure on behalf of the church to respond appropriately to the issues and the matters and the allegations of sexual abuse throughout Australia.”

He told commissioners clericalism was a “significant problem … the abuse of power and authority”.

It was a “shock” and a “great awakening” to see the appalling statistics on abuse within the church, Saunders said.

“We have all of us, I think – certainly myself, anyway – sat with victims of child abuse, and it strikes deeply into your heart to listen to the story of a person, somebody that you know, even somebody that you have just met.

Saunders, 73, started working as a deacon in Broome in 1975, before spending about a decade as a priest in various remote WA missions. In 1989 he was appointed as an administrator to Broome, becoming the bishop in 1996.

He ministered to 13 schools across the 773,000 square km diocese.

In 2018, WA police launched a three-year investigation into allegations against Saunders but did not have enough evidence to charge him.

Saunders denied the allegations. He stood down in 2020, before resigning as bishop in 2021.

Saunders has vehemently denied the allegations, telling Channel Seven they were “extraordinary”.

“Listen, let me say without any doubt whatsoever, without any reservation, that has never happened, and it never would,” he said in 2020.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has now handed the Vatican report to police.

“The Catholic church in all cases to do with sexual abuse and assault needs to act consistently and transparently,” the chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn, Francis Sullivan, said. Sullivan is also the former head of the royal commission’s truth, justice and healing council.

“And the days of the Catholic church investigating itself have to be over. Official bodies, state bodies, have the responsibility to investigate.”

Leonie Sheedy, a victim and survivor advocate from the Care Leavers Australasia Network, said as far as she was concerned, there “hasn’t been enough light let in”.

Sheedy said alleged victims would want a thorough, open investigation, including into the Clovelly allegation, and would want to know if he was staying on church property in Broome, as reported.

The ACBC said it would “continue to offer full transparency and cooperation with the WA police”.

It also rejected accusations it had breached mandatory reporting laws, which apply only to children.

“None of the potential victims were under the age of 18,” it said in a statement.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said it was helping NSW police in regards to the Sydney allegations and had “cooperated fully with church investigation authorities”.

“The archdiocese takes its reporting obligations seriously and is vigilant in taking steps to protect the safety and wellbeing of children and adults at risk in our communities,” a spokesperson said.

Last week, the ACBC president and archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, said the allegations were “very serious and deeply distressing” but declined to comment on specific allegations.

 * * Support and counselling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is available at 13YARN (13 92 76) or the Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905. 

Children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; adult survivors can seek help at Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380.