Vatican Accuses Australian Bishop of Sexual Offences

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Catholic bishop

An independent report commissioned by the Vatican has labelled a Catholic Bishop from Western Australia a ‘sexual predator’, accusing him of sexually assaulting four Indigenous youths and grooming dozens of others.

Vatican commissioned investigation 

The Vatican confirmed it commissioned the investigation which accused Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders of sexual assault and child grooming.

It also claims the Bishop hosted ‘bunga bunga’ parties at Church properties and spent thousands of dollars of Church fund on payments, mobile phones, alcohol and cigarettes.  

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

He is presumed to be innocent of the allegations unless and until he is found guilty in a court of law.

Honoured Emeritus Bishop status in jeopardy

Mr Saunders resigned in 2020 after sexual misconduct and bullying claims emerged.

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

The ball is now in the court of police

The Vatican has provided authorities with a copy of the report it commissioned, handing it over to the Western Australia Deputy Commissioner of Police.

A statement from the Vatican says its investigation concerned “alleged canonical crimes,” as defined by Vos estis lux mundi, and alleging breaches of the Church’s Integrity in Ministry protocols. Integrity in Ministry is akin to a code of conduct. 

It also says that although Bishop Saunders has maintained his innocence, he “chose not to participate in the investigation” within the time limit originally specified by the Vatican.

Importantly the Church’s statement was keen to stress that the accusations against the Bishop do not concern minors and that the investigation did not identify any alleged or potential victims under the age of 18, and therefore it had not breached mandatory reporting law. 

For their part, Western Australian Police say they have previously carried out “investigations into a number of complaints regarding a member of the Catholic Church in the Kimberley region”, but at that time there was insufficient evidence to lay any criminal charges. 

Systemic abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church 

Thousands of allegations have been made all around the world in recent years, including from nuns. And, in Australia many of those were facilitated by the Royal Commission into Child Sexual abuse which heard 4,444 allegations of abuse against more than 1,800 Catholic Church figures. 

Many victims seeking compensation from the Church still have cases pending, or currently before the courts and the Church has been heavily criticised for finding legal loopholes and clever tactics to slow cases down, and in some cases, avoid court processes altogether, particularly given that it is one of the wealthiest organisations in the world. 

Laws have been changed and legal precedents have been set in recent years which are aimed at making it easier for victims to sue the church which has not always been co-operative, or even open about its responsibility to acknowledge victim survivors. 

Mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse and neglect 

In Western Australia, as in most states, mandatory reporting exists. Under the relevant legislation, all mandatory reporters must report sexual abuse, and reporters mandated under the Family Court Act may have additional reporting requirements.

Failure to make a mandatory report is an offence with a maximum penalty of $6,000. Ministers of religion are not excused from criminal responsibility for failing to make a report on the grounds that their belief is based on information disclosed during a religious confession.

Concealing child abuse in New South Wales 

Similar laws exist in New South Wales. 

The Offence of Concealing Child Abuse is contained in section 316A of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). 

Under the section, all adults (irrespective of occupation) are required to report information to police if they:

  • know, believe or reasonably ought to know that a child (under 18 years) has been abused, or
  • know, believe, or reasonably ought to know that they have information that might materially assist in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of the offender.
  • This offence covers sexual abuse, serious physical abuse and extreme neglect of a child (under 18 years). 

Failure to report carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for two years.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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