Former Australian bishop charged with historical sex offenses

A senior Australian Catholic clergyman has been charged with historical sex offenses allegedly committed while he was serving as the bishop of Broome, a remote diocese in Western Australia.

Emeritus Bishop Christopher Saunders was arrested on Wednesday at his home in Broome, where he became bishop in 1996, according to CNN affiliate Seven News.

Police did not name Saunders in a statement, which said a 74-year-old man had been charged with two counts of sexual penetration without consent, more than a dozen unlawful and indecent assault charges, and three counts of indecently dealing with a child age 16 to 18.

He was refused bail and was expected to face court on Thursday.

In a statement, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the allegations against Saunders were “very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making those allegations.”

“It is right and proper, and indeed necessary, that all such allegations be thoroughly investigated,” Costelloe said. “The Church will continue to cooperate fully with the police and take every necessary step to avoid any actions which may compromise the integrity and autonomy of the police investigation.”

In his statement, Costelloe didn’t specify the allegations against Saunders, who stepped down as bishop in 2020 after claims emerged of sexual misconduct. Saunders denied the allegations at the time.

The allegations against him were initially the subject of a Vatican investigation, and last September the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference confirmed it had passed a copy of its findings to the WA Deputy Commissioner of Police.

Saunders is the highest-ranking Australian Catholic official charged with historical sex abuse charges since Cardinal George Pell faced court over historical assaults allegedly committed in the late 1990s.

Pell was found guilty, but his conviction was later overturned on appeal by Australia’s High Court. The former cardinal was freed from prison and later died in a Rome hospital in 2023 age 81.

Scandals surrounding alleged sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church have emerged in many countries in recent decades, prompting apologies but also claims that not enough is being done to stamp it out.

The extent of the problem in Australia was detailed in the findings of a wide-ranging government inquiry released in 2017 that found a “serious failure” by Australian institutions to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Of the survivors who reported being abused in a religious institution, 61.4% said the abuse occurred in a Catholic organization.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reported that 7% of Australian Catholic priests had been accused of abusing children. In some orders, more than 40% of brothers were implicated, the report said.

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