Christopher Saunders: Senior bishop who served Australian Outback for 45 years charged with rape

Christoper Saunders  (Reuters)
Christoper Saunders (Reuters)

Retired bishop Christopher Saunders has been charged with rape and child abuse in a remote part of Australia's northwest.

The 74-year-old former bishop of Broome was arrested and taken into custody by Western Australia police on Wednesday following investigations launched by law enforcement and the clergy.

Mr Saunders is the most senior Catholic official in Australia to be charged with child sexual offences after Cardinal George Pell.

Mr Saunders has previously denied any wrongdoing.

He was taken to the Broome police station and charged overnight with 19 offences — two counts of rape, 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault and three counts of being a person in authority indecently dealing with a child.

Mr Saunders will appear in the Broome magistrates court on Thursday in the heart of the sprawling Outback diocese where he had actively served as a cleric for 45 years. The alleged offences date back to 2008 across Broome as well as the far-flung northwest towns of Kununurra and Kalumburu.

The allegations were brought to light in 2020 but an initial police investigation was closed without charges being laid against the bishop.

Mr Saunders resigned in 2021 as bishop of Broome after police announced they had dropped a sex crime investigation.

A Vatican investigation into child sexual abuse allegations against Mr Saunders began in 2022.

The renewed police investigation was triggered last year after the contents of a 200-page Vatican report were leaked.

The Western Australia police at the time said they had requested a copy of that report, which restarted the criminal investigation.

Mr Saunders began working in Broome as a deacon in 1975 and became bishop in 1996.

Timothy Costelloe, the Archbishop of Perth, in a statement, said the church would continue to co-operate with police.

"It is right and proper, and indeed necessary, that all allegations be thoroughly investigated," he said, according to ABC News.

"The church will continue to cooperate fully with police and take every necessary step to avoid any actions which may compromise the integrity and autonomy of the police investigation."

Cardinal Pell was the third highest-ranking cleric in the Vatican when he was convicted in an Australian court in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996.

Pell spent 13 months in prison before the convictions were overturned on appeal. He maintained his innocence until he died in Rome last year.

In 2018, a judge quashed former Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson's conviction for covering up child sexual abuse by a pedophile priest in the 1970s in New South Wales state.