BROOME, Australia — Australian Bishop Christopher Saunders of Broome has temporarily stepped back from his duties following allegations of historical sexual abuse. The Vatican has begun an investigation into claims that Bishop Saunders sexually abused boys several decades ago.
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, metropolitan archbishop of the province, announced that Bishop Saunders voluntarily stepped aside on Tuesday, March 10, in a letter to the diocese.
Bishop Peter Ingham, emeritus bishop of the diocese of Wollongong has been named as the Apostolic Visitor of the Broome diocese while the investigation continues.
“The Holy See, conscious of the particular situation in the Diocese of Broome and concerned for the pastoral care of the clergy, religious and laity of the Diocese, has appointed Most Reverend Peter W Ingham, Emeritus Bishop of Wollongong, Apostolic Visitator to the Diocese, effective today,” wrote Costelloe on March 10.
“Bishop Christopher Saunders, in order to allow the Apostolic Visitator the freedom to carry out his duties, has voluntarily stood aside from the ordinary administration of the diocese for the duration of the Visitation. The day-to-day running of the Diocese will be the responsibility of Monsignor Paul Boyers.”
The bishop was first accused of historical sexual abuse about a year and a half ago, and police have been investigating. Charges are not believed to have been filed against Bishop Saunders, who denies all the allegations. The bishop told a reporter for Australia’s Channel Seven TV this week that, “Without any reservation, without any doubt whatsoever, that has never happened, and it never would happen.”
No details have been publicly released about the abuse allegations, other than that the two alleged victims are male. The alleged date, location, and nature of the abuse has not been publicly released, and Western Australia Police told local media that they do not make comments about accusations against specific individuals.
Bishop Saunders was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Broome in 1976. He was born in Melbourne. In 1989, he became the diocesan administrator, and was consecrated as the bishop of Broome in 1995. He is 70 years old.
Bishop Saunders is not the first Australian bishop to face accusations related to the sexual abuse of minors.
Cardinal George Pell was convicted of historical sexual abuse in December, 2018, and sentenced to six years in prison. He denies the allegations and is presently appealing his case before the High Court in Canberra.
In 2018, a district judge overturned the conviction of Archbishop Philip Wilson for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse disclosed to him in the 1970s, saying there was reasonable doubt a crime had been committed.
“The potential for media pressure to impact judicial independence may be subtle or indeed subversive in the sense that it is the elephant in the room that no one sees or acknowledges or wants to see or acknowledge,” Judge Roy Ellis said.
The judge added that Wilson could not be convicted merely because the “Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of its historical self-protective approach” to clerical sex abuse. “Philip Wilson when he appears before this court is simply an individual who has the same legal rights as every other person in our community.”
“It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of [others] by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.”