Saturday, September 30, 2023

Bishop Saunders has ‘gone rogue’ amid abuse investigation (Contribution)

Bishop Christopher Saunders still in Broome despite Vatican decree to leave  diocese - ABC News

The slow-burn saga of Broome bishop Christopher Saunders has again hit national headlines with an independent report commissioned by the Vatican this week describing him as a sexual predator.

Bishop Saunders strenuously denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged with an offence.

But the Vatican will soon have to decide whether he remains an honoured emeritus Bishop or is defrocked in disgrace.

The case has much in common with international Catholic Church abuse cases — allegations of secrecy, sexual misconduct and abuses of power.

But at the heart of it are some of the most remote and vulnerable communities in Australia, where some deeply religious Aboriginal elders believe speaking out against the church can trigger floods and other natural disasters.

Over the past four years there's been a distinctly outback flavour to this slowly unfolding crisis.

To this day, Bishop Saunders has a beer named after him at a popular Broome brewery, where a large painting of the cleric looms over the beer taps.

He was always an unusual Bishop, in an unusual diocese.

Now he's allegedly disobeying the Vatican hierarchy he's served for five decades, refusing to leave Broome and refusing to respond to the myriad allegations levelled against him.

How did it come to this?

Christopher Saunders was ordained a priest in Broome in 1976.

The vast Broome diocese covers much of northern Western Australia,  an area roughly the size of Sweden.

The Catholic Church has a deep and conflicted connection with the region. Through much of the 20th century it ran remote Aboriginal missions that both protected and institutionalised people during the brutal early days of colonisation.

Countless children were stripped of culture and connection to family.

Despite this, many people remain deeply loyal to the Catholic church.

Once in the Kimberley, the young Father Saunders served stints at several remote Aboriginal community parishes, where he developed a reputation for being domineering but generous with local families who were loyal to the faith.

In 1996 he was appointed Bishop, piloting a small aeroplane and a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles to far-flung towns.

I first met Bishop Saunders in 2008.

He was — and is — an imposing figure: a big man, highly intelligent with a deep baritone voice.

He was a familiar face around town, known for enthusiastic socialising, advocating for social justice and escorting young men on fishing and camping trips. 

Police investigation goes public

But in 2018, things began to unravel for the high-profile Bishop.

A young Indigenous man confided in a local priest about inappropriate sexual acts allegedly committed by Bishop Saunders.

A police statement obtained by the ABC alleges Bishop Saunders took the man camping, supplied him with several beers and later entered his tent, attempting to touch his penis.

It also describes an incident in Melbourne when Bishop Saunders took the youth to an AFL game and later entered his hotel room.

The young man alleges Bishop Saunders laid down on top of him in the bed and again tried to initiate sexual acts.

Bishop Saunders has never addressed the allegations specifically but has denied any wrongdoing. He has not responded to ABC's requests for comment.

A WA Police investigation got underway but the Church said nothing publicly and took no steps to remove Bishop Saunders from his role.

It wasn't until March 2020 – when news of the police investigation leaked to the media — that Bishop Saunders suddenly went on a six-month sabbatical.

Two police investigations occurred over two years with the files bouncing between detectives in Kununurra, Perth and Broome.

It was a challenging case. There were language barriers, a distrust of police, Wet season rains cutting off key locations and hesitation among many in Aboriginal communities to speak out against the church and its larger-than-life figurehead.

In May 2021, the ABC revealed WA Police had closed the file and decided not to lay charges.

Not long after, the Vatican announced Bishop Saunders was resigning.

Vatican inquiry starts in secret

But it wasn't the end of the matter. With the police investigation concluded, the Catholic Church was free to begin its own inquiries.

For the first time, Pope Francis decided to implement a "vos estis" investigation in Australia.

The protocol — from vos estis lux mundi ("you are the light of the world") — was created by Pope Francis in 2019 to respond more efficiently and transparently to allegations of sexual abuse against senior clerics.

However, the situation remained shrouded in secrecy.

When the ABC broke the news of the fresh inquiry in February 2022, the Vatican refused to confirm or deny the development.

'Gone rogue'

Meanwhile, Bishop Saunders appeared to be flouting a Vatican instruction to leave the Broome diocese while the investigation was underway.

The decree from the Holy See stipulated that "Bishop Saunders is to reside outside the Diocese of Broome for the duration of the investigation".

Local parishioners have been shocked to see the septuagenarian continuing to occupy church houses and drive church vehicles in an apparent breach of Vatican orders.

One long-time parishioner, who was friendly with the Bishop but keen for accountability, described the cleric as "gone rogue".

"I never thought it would come to this – it's like he's got nothing to lose," he told me.

Shock revelations

The vos estis inquiry involved a team of independent investigators brought in to test the allegations of sexual misconduct, bullying and financial mismanagement.

Throughout 2022 a pair of former police detectives criss-crossed the continent interviewing hundreds of people, from far-flung bush communities to senior church figures in the eastern states.

The result was a 200-page report submitted to the Vatican in April.

The report outlines sexual assault allegations by four men and alleges alcohol and cash were used to groom dozens of others.

Those familiar with the document have expressed shock at the scale and breadth of the findings, which Bishop Saunders has not responded to.

Where to now?

It is now up to Pope Francis to decide the fate of Bishop Saunders.

It's widely believed the damning report was leaked by senior church officials, given the tightly controlled access and non-disclosure agreements signed with third parties.

Similar cases overseas give some indication of possible outcomes.

It is relatively rare for a Bishop to be laicised, or "defrocked".

Recent examples include Theodore McCarrick from Washington in the United States, who was cut loose by the church years after he was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

There are other examples where the church has defrocked bishops despite the allegations not resulting in criminal charges, as is the case with Bishop Saunders.

In 2018 it laicised Chilean bishop Marco Antonio Ordenes Fernandez, despite allegations of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy not being proven in court.

In other cases, the Vatican responded with more moderate actions, such as removing pastoral duties and restricting the movement of accused clerics.

For example, a recent vos estis inquiry resulted in New Zealand Bishop Charles Drennan leaving his diocese but remaining a "non-practicing" bishop, entitled to financial support from the church. 

Local reaction

The case has international implications but has caused the most distress in the small, dusty communities of the Kimberley.

The influence and authority of the Catholic Church in the region is hard to overstate. In many areas the Church has been a more consistent and supportive presence than any government service or charity.

But the revelations of the past week have shocked even the most loyal parishioners to the core, with some in tears during long phone calls dissecting the evidence.

During years of reporting on Bishop Saunders, I've found the faith runs so deep it manifests as fear among some older parishioners.

In 2019, I sat with a quietly spoken Aboriginal woman in a grassy park as I investigated rumours of a local priest impregnating a local schoolteacher under Bishop Saunders' watch.

"We got to be careful," she whispers in the audio recording.

"My sister once spoke up against the priest and that's when the storms came.

"We were flooded… God did that.

"So I got to be careful what I say."

It's a fraught environment in which to obtain evidence or enforce transparency.

But there is relief this week that the allegations that have swirled around the Diocese of Broome for years will not remain out of sight, out of mind much longer.