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Australia: Retired bishop charged with child sex crimes

February 22, 2024

One of Australia's most senior Catholics stands accused of committing several sexual offenses against children. The 74-year-old emeritus bishop was arrested after a Vatican investigation.

Man being escorted out of gate by plainclothes officer
Saunders was arrested on Wednesday (still image from video)Image: Seven Network/Handout/REUTERS

A retired Australian Roman Catholic bishop who is alleged to have perpetrated a number of sexual offenses while presiding over the Diocese of Broome in the state of Western Australia appeared in court on Thursday to face charges.

The offenses are alleged to have taken place between 2008 and 2014. They included two of sexual penetration without consent, 14 of unlawful and indecent assault and three of a person in authority indecently dealing with a child.

Vatican investigation into Australian bishop

The emeritus bishop, Christopher Saunders, stood down in 2020 after the allegations emerged, with Pope Francis accepting his resignation in 2021.

However, an initial police investigation did not find enough evidence to charge him. It was not until the Vatican gave police information from its own probe, launched in 2022 using powers first introduced by Pope Francis, that Saunders could be reinvestigated.

He was arrested on Wednesday.

The Diocese of Broome, where Saunders worked for more than 20 years, covers an area larger than the US state of Texas in northwest Australia. It is home to dozens of remote Aboriginal communities.

Interview with a sexual abuse survivor

What the Catholic Church in Australia said

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the church would continue to cooperate with the police.

"Allegations against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, are very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making those allegations," Costelloe said in a statement.

Saunders has previously denied any wrongdoing.

Another major Australian Catholic figure, Cardinal George Pell, was imprisoned on sexual abuse charges in 2019,  but had his convictions quashed the next year.

tj/wd (AFP, Reuters)