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BROOME, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - An Australian bishop who is accused of sexually abusing and grooming 71 young aboriginal males remains in control of nine charities in his former diocese, one of which has a revenue of at least $1 million.
A 200-page secret report cited witnesses describing Bp. Christopher Saunders as "a sexual predator" who sought "to prey upon vulnerable aboriginal men and boys" and groomed his victims, plying them with cash, alcohol, hotels, phones, phone credit and air and bus travel.
The report found that Saunders was in possession of several guns, bought a $70,000 boat and multiple cars and was spending up to $4,000 a month on alcohol for the young men. He is also alleged to have had five bank accounts, which, at one point, held a total of $3 million.
The bishop used a Church plane to transport alcohol to dry aboriginal communities around the vast 770,000-square-kilometer diocese. Witnesses reported that cases of whiskey were hidden in gunnysacks "at the bishop's instructions to disguise the contents."
Despite the report following the 2022 Vos Estis Lux Mundi investigation authorized by Pope Francis, Saunders continues to be listed as the "responsible person" for nine charities, most of which are linked to parishes in the Broome diocese, The Guardian reported Tuesday.
Seven of the nonprofit organizations controlled by the disgraced bishop have no published financial information. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission's rules do not require a "basic religious charity" to publish its reports.
The Kimberley Native Mission Fund drew in revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars and is reported to have assets worth $1.72 million, according to The Guardian. However, by 2020 (the last year for which financial information is available), its income was $7,525, its expenses $82,548, and its assets had shrunk to $684,782.
The Mirrilingki Spirituality Centre, an accommodation center with $355,143 in net assets as of 2020, is the only other charity with available financial information. The Kalumburu Mission was listed with a revenue of more than $1 million.
A source from Broome who requested anonymity told Church Militant that clergy and staff close to Bp. Saunders "knew he was spending huge amounts on himself, eating out on a regular basis, had a raft of vehicles — three for himself and bought up real estate around town."
"About nine houses [bought by the bishop] sat empty, yet Broome church is asbestos and 50 years old, and it needs replacing," the source said. "He always had wads of cash on him, which astounded us. Yet his priests were only paid wages, so low [that] I'm not sure how they managed," the source added.
A second source confirmed that the bishop very rarely submitted receipts for his expenses to the chancery.
Whistleblower Fr. John Purnell, who alerted police to allegations about Saunders after being approached by a young aboriginal victim and who worked with the bishop in the Broome diocese, told The Guardian that he had never heard of the KNMF.
"I just didn't know anything about them. I'm gobsmacked," Purnell said. "When I was working out at Balgo, Kalumburu, Halls Creek, I was never given any money to do anything at all. We were always told to tighten our belts."
"If anything went wrong or a dead tree needed to be removed, a leaky roof, you'd be fighting to get Saunders to get it fixed," the priest noted. "He gave us targets, and if we didn't meet the targets, we'd get screamed at, but we never knew where the money was going."
In a statement released in September, Abp. Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, said the allegations against Saunders "are very serious and deeply distressing," and "it is right and proper for them to be thoroughly investigated," Church Militant reported.
But Cherrille Quilty, the bishop's former personal secretary, earlier told Church Militant that she had alerted police and Church authorities five years ago. "I made a police statement of 15 pages in December 2018 outlining all that I knew," Quilty said.
"Unfortunately, our police did not take that view because the bishop was paying the boys cash, which they accepted," she lamented. "This was a man of immense power, and it is in the nature of aboriginal people to be shy and feel shame — their own shame but also their community (tribal) shame. This is why so many are yet to speak out."
Quilty said that both she and Fr. Purnell had "written endless letters" to the bishops' conference to Abp. Mark Coleridge of Brisbane and Sydney's Abp. Anthony Fisher.
"I have also written to previous and current papal nuncios to outline in detail Bp. Saunders' grooming, spending on young men, paying them cash, his compromising behavior, having young aboriginal men stay in his house, but I was completely ignored," Quilty stressed.
The offenses date back 50 years, to when Saunders was newly ordained and working as a parish priest at Clovelly, Sydney, in 1976.
In May 2021, police and prosecutors announced that because of "insufficient evidence," they would not lay charges. In August, Saunders resigned as bishop of Broome but still holds his title and his entitlements as bishop.
To this day, Bp. Saunders has a beer named after him at a popular Broome brewery, where a large painting of the cleric looms over the beer taps.