A top-secret investigation ordered by the pope into a former Australian bishop – the first of its kind in Australia’s history – has found he likely sexually abused four teenagers, while he may have sexually molested another 67.
The 200-page report also found that 73-year-old Christopher Saunders spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on church and charitable funds to support the young men.
7NEWS has exclusively obtained a copy of the final report that Pope Francis submitted to the Vatican for processing.
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The report was completed in April and sent to Rome – but six months later no decision has been made about its future.
Only a pope can appoint a bishop – and only a pope can remove one.
Since Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal at the Supreme Court in 2020, Saunders has become the highest-ranking Catholic in the country to be investigated for sex crimes.
It is believed Saunders – the former Bishop of Broome – may be the most senior religious figure in Australia to face such serious allegations.
The report makes a surprising number of findings against Saunders, who served in the Diocese of Broome for almost 50 years.
“The bishop was repeatedly described by witnesses as… a sexual predator who targeted vulnerable Aboriginal men and boys,” the report said.
“As part of the investigation, four victims of sexual (criminal) acts were identified.”
“Sixty-seven other Aboriginal boys and men have also been identified as persons who may have been subjected to offenses or behavior by Bishop Saunders.”
It is alleged the alleged offenses occurred 50 years ago – when Saunders was newly ordained and working as a priest in Sydney.
“Another man was identified as a suspected victim of Bishop Saunders under the church’s National Redress Scheme when he was vicar at Clovelly in 1976,” the report continued.
Saunders was ordained in 1976 and later moved to the Kimberley full-time. In 1996 he became Bishop of Broome.
The report alleges he developed a “modus operandi” to groom vulnerable young Aboriginal males by plying them with alcohol, cash, phones, phone credit, hotels and air and bus travel.
It emerged he was spending up to $4,000 a month on alcohol for the teens.
Saunders is also said to have had five bank accounts that once held a total of $3 million. There was $80,000 in cash in the safe in the office.
He also collected several guns, bought a $70,000 boat and several cars.
The investigation was led by two former WA Police officers who have a combined 60 years of service. They identified a total of 102 witnesses and 30 were formally interviewed.
A former church worker claimed Saunders funded his lifestyle with money donated from across Australia, local op shops in Broome and even from Sunday service collection plates. The money would go to indigenous charities.
One employee called it “immoral and inappropriate.”
The report also reveals Saunders used the church plane to transport alcohol to dry Aboriginal communities around the vast 770,000 square kilometer diocese.
Witnesses said pieces of Jim Bean and Coke were hidden in burlap bags “at the bishop’s direction to conceal the contents.”
Saunders voluntarily resigned in 2020 after 7NEWS aired a special report that revealed he was the focus of an 18-month Washington Police Department investigation codenamed “Operation White Plane.”
In May 2021, police and prosecutors announced that they would not file charges due to “insufficient evidence.”
Saunders resigned as Bishop of Broome three months later, but continued to retain his episcopal title and rights.
The Vos Estis investigation was launched by Pope Francis on September 27 last year.
The report also found that many members of the church community who had defended themselves against Saunders over the years had “either lost their jobs, lost their faith or suffered both psychological and reputational damage.”
The papal inquiry is officially known as Vos Estis Lux Mundi – Latin for “You are the light of the world.” It is a policy that Pope Francis advocated in 2019 to bring light to the darkest corners of the Catholic world.
It is believed there have been at least seven Vox Estis requests worldwide – six in the United States – as well as this one in Australia.
The Catholic Church in Australia declined to comment on the report other than to confirm that the results of its investigation had been sent to the Vatican.