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BROOME, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - A confidential investigation authorized by Pope Francis into an Australian bishop has found that the prelate may have sexually abused and groomed 71 young aboriginal males.
In the 200-page bombshell report, witnesses described 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, air and bus travel.
Church authorities have been unwilling to release to Australian police the report on the former bishop. On Wednesday, the Australian television news channel 7NEWS revealed the dossier was leaked to the news outlet.
Cherrille Quilty, the bishop's former personal secretary, told Church Militant 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.
The bishop's secretary revealed that Fr. John Purnell, who served in Halls Creek, a very remote town in the Kimberley of Western Australia that has a large population of aboriginals, first blew the whistle on Bp. Saunders after he was approached by a victim in October 2018.
"All the chancery staff and serving priests, as well as two priests who left the Church over Saunders, knew this bishop was a sexual predator, but what has been released in the report is more shocking than we realized," Quilty observed.
The former secretary further explained:
I am a mother and grandmother, so instinct tells you that something is very wrong when a bishop compromises himself by having young men stay in his home (when there is empty accommodation behind his home), when he travels with them to remote locations and when he buys them phones, alcohol, clothes, etc.
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."
The bishop was well known for throwing "Bunga-Bunga" parties where only male guests were invited, the report added.
Quilty told Church Militant, "Bishop Saunders got many young men so drunk they 'fell down' (their words). In my mind (it's only my commonsense thoughts here), if someone is so drunk that their ability to say no to sexual advances of any kind is entirely diminished, and to me, that is rape."
"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."
A source from the diocese who requested anonymity confirmed to Church Militant that the Western Australian police had mishandled the investigation.
Despite staff giving statements to the police, and the police assigning four detectives to three locations, Saunders was never questioned by the police, the source said. Police also did not initiate a search warrant, despite being told where to find incriminating evidence.
The source also revealed that Msgr. Paul Boyers, currently still in the Broome diocese, had been friends with the bishop for almost 50 years and had shared a house with Saunders when they were both priests.
"He must have had full knowledge that Saunders was a sexual predator from seeing the bishop have young men stay in his house, frequently traveling with the youth and buying them alcohol and cigarettes (Bp. Saunders does not smoke)," the source noted.
In a statement released on Tuesday, 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."
Archbishop Costelloe later confirmed that in response to a request from the Western Australia Police, "the Church is taking immediate steps to provide them a copy of the Vatican-initiated report into Bp. Christopher Saunders."
In response to the archbishop's statement, 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 whistleblower secretary said she had not received even an acknowledgement from the bishops or nuncios and none of them had ever replied to her.
A victim quoted in the report described how the bishop would proceed to get the young men drunk and demand they remove their shorts and shirts.
"I saw him kiss and hug ... and touch them in the private parts," he said. "I was really shocked."
A second victim said he first met Saunders at a backyard barbeque at his home. The bishop later asked him to help with gardening and offered the use of his shower.
"He started washing me with soap and shampoo, rubbing me all over my body — in my private part, my front part," the young man said, noting he was in the shower when the bishop climbed in with him. "I was scared. He was a big fella, and I was just a teenager at the time."
The victim said the bishop started giving him cash, clothes, a new mobile phone, phone credit, cigarettes and alcohol. Saunders also flew him to Melbourne to see his first Australian Football League game and made him stay in the same hotel room.
At the Youth Catholic Festival in Perth, a victim allegedly "woke up with the bishop laying naked on top of him." In another incident, a nun complained that the bishop tried to "get in" with a boy "while he was in his sleeping bag" at a youth camp.
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.
Pope Francis launched the Vos Estis Lux Mundi investigation on Sept. 27 of last year.