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Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders: Pope-ordered investigation alleges as many as 71 victims

Chris ReasonThe West Australian
VideoOne of Australia's most powerful Catholic figureheads faces eplosive allegations of sex crimes against young males.

A top-secret investigation ordered by the Pope into an Western Australian Bishop – the first of its kind in Australian history – has found he is likely to have sexually assaulted four youths while potentially grooming another 67.

The bombshell 200-page report also found that 73-year-old Bishop Christopher Saunders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in church and charity funds to groom the young men.

A 7NEWS investigation exclusively obtained a copy of the final report that has been handed to the Vatican for action by Pope Francis.

The report was completed six months ago in April and sent to Rome – but no decision has yet been made on the future of the former Bishop of Broome.

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Since the acquittal of Cardinal George Pell in the High Court in 2020, Saunders has become the highest-ranked Catholic in the country to face a sex crimes investigation.

It’s believed Bishop Saunders may be the highest-ranked official of any religion in Australia to face such serious accusations.

The report makes an astonishing number of findings against Bishop Saunders, who had been working in the Broome diocese for almost 50 years.

“The Bishop has been variously described by witnesses as … a sexual predator that seeks to prey upon vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys,” the report states.

“During the investigation, four victims of sexual acts were identified.

Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders.
Camera IconBishop of Broome Christopher Saunders. Credit: unknown/Supplied

“67 additional Aboriginal boys and men were also identified as persons that may have been subjected to delictual acts or grooming behaviours by Bishop Saunders.”

It claims the alleged offences date back 50 years — to the time when the clergyman was newly-ordained and first working as a priest in Sydney.

“One additional man was identified through the Church’s National Redress Scheme as being an alleged victim of Bishop Saunders while (he) was a parish priest at Clovelly in 1976.”

Saunders was ordained as a priest in 1976 and moved full-time to the Kimberley region. He became a Bishop in 1996.

The report claims he had developed a “modus operandi” of grooming vulnerable young Aboriginal males by plying them with alcohol, cash, phones, phone credit, hotels, air and bus travel.

It found he was spending between $3000 and $4000 per month on alcohol for the youths.

It also alleges he had five bank accounts — which at one time held a total of $3 million. The safe in the Chancery was found to have $80,000 in cash.

He also collected multiple guns, bought a $70,000 boat and several cars.

The investigation was led by two former WA Police detectives with 60 years of service between them.

They identified a total of 102 witnesses, and formally interviewed 30 of them.

One former Church worker revealed Bishop Saunders funded his lifestyle using money that had been donated from around Australia, Broome’s local opshops and even from the Sunday service collection plates. The money was meant to go to indigenous charitable causes.

One staffer called it “immoral and improper”.

The report also reveals Bishop Saunders would use the church airplane to transport alcohol to dry Aboriginal communities around the vast 770,000 square kilometre diocese.

Witnesses said slabs of Jim Bean and Coke would be hidden in hessian bags “at the Bishop’s instructions to disguise the contents”.

In 2020, Bishop Saunders voluntarily stood down after 7NEWS broadcast a special report revealing he had been at the centre of an 18-month investigation by WA Police codenamed “Operation White Plane”.

In May 2021, police and prosecutors announced they would not lay charges claiming “insufficient evidence”.

Bishop Saunders resigned from his position in Broome just months later, in August, but still holds his title as Bishop and his entitlements.

The Vos Estis inquiry was launched by Pope Francis on September 27 last year.

The report also found that many members of the Church community that stood up to Bishop Saunders over the years, “have either lost their jobs, lost their faith, or suffered both psychological and reputational damage.”

The Papal inquiry is officially known as a Vos Estis Lux Mundi — Latin for “You Are the Light of the World”. It’s a policy championed by Pope Francis in 2019 to shine light into the darkest corners of the Catholic world.

It’s believed there have been at least seven Vox Estis inquiries worldwide — six in the US — and now this, the first of its kind in Australia.

The Catholic Church in Australia would not comment on the report — except to confirm that the results of their investigation had been sent to the Vatican.

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