So, the Vatican announced on Saturday that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Christopher Saunders from the pastoral leadership of the Diocese of Broome in Australia.
Bishop Saunders is 71 years-old. He has been steeped in scandal regarding sexual misconduct – abuse of boys – and embroiled in controversy over personnel mismanagement as well as playing fast-and-loose with diocesan finances.
A suffragan of Perth, Broome is an “outback diocese” sprawling over nearly 300 thousand square miles in the state of Western Australia. The city from which the See of Broome takes its name sits in the southwest niche of a peninsula that juts into the Indian Ocean, about 700 miles southwest of Darwin as the crow flies. There’s more space where there’s no one than there are places where there’s anyone. One could almost say that Broome is in the middle of nowhere.
Christopher Saunders became the Bishop of Broome in 1996. His election to the see followed his more than two decades of service as a priest there. During his twenty years’ priestly service, he worked in several of the missions in the diocese. Those missions ministered primarily to aboriginal people. The abuse allegations – which Saunders has strongly and repeatedly denied – reportedly come from aboriginal parish communities.
Police in Western Australia looked at the sexual abuse allegations, which went back at least two decades. They decided not to press charges, but they did not exonerate the bishop. Police reportedly turned their findings over to Church authorities. Church authorities in Australia reportedly had multiple reports of Saunders’ misconduct no later than April of 2019, and knew about the police investigation as early as October of 2018. It was only in 2020, however – right before an Australian Broadcasting Corporation news reports on the police inquiry were set to air – that the Vatican finally ordered an investigation into Saunders’ governance.
That investigation didn’t look at the abuse allegations against Bishop Saunders, but its scope did include allegations Saunders mishandled abuse complaints against others. Saunders went on sabbatical during the Church investigation, though he stayed in the diocese and continued to say funeral Masses. The results of the Church investigation went to Pope Francis and stayed with him. Neither the Vatican nor any other Church authority has ever officially published the results.
You wouldn’t know any of that from the one line in the bulletin for the Press Office of the Holy See on Saturday, though. The Press Office simply announced that Pope Francis has accepted Bishop Saunders’ resignation. On a Saturday. In August.
You’ll occasionally see this described as “customary practice” but the thing is, the Press Office used to tell us at least whether the guy resigning had sent his letter upon reaching the age of retirement, or if he was resigning for some other grave reason. The language was “in keeping with Canon 401§1” when it was for reached limits of age, 401§2 if for some other reason.
“Kids or cancer” is the way some Vatican watchers would grimly refer to the ambiguity created by an unspecified 401§2 indication. We talked about how easy it would be to avoid any confusion. All it would take was a tweak to the law, dividing 401§2 into subsections: one for health, another (or others) for … other stuff.
There have been a few occasions on which a fellow who had done no wrong but resigned for reasons of mental or physical health came in for some rough treatment because of the way things are set up. Archbishop Lionginas Virbalas SJ, emeritus of Kaunas in Lithuania, was one. For all Rome’s talk of how important it is to protect reputations, no remedy for this needless ambiguity has been forthcoming. In fact, the Vatican has stopped saying even whether a resigning bishop is doing so under 401§1 or 401§2.
To hear the Australian bishops tell it, you’d never know there was any hint of suspicion regarding Christopher Saunders.
“During his time in office,” read a statement released by the Diocese of Broome and carried on the Australian bishops’ conference website, “Bishop Christopher initiated many pastoral and spiritual initiatives for the growth and betterment of the People of God in the Kimberley region.”
“He has long established an active presence throughout the vast region and is well known to many people,” the Broome statement went on to say, “Catholic and non-Catholic alike.”
“We wish Bishop Saunders an enjoyable and fruitful retirement,” the statement continued. “When the opportunity becomes available people will have the chance to farewell the Bishop.”
The rest is an announcement that the Bishop of Geraldton, Michael Morrissey, is named Apostolic Administrator of Broome. That’s it.
Two and a half years ago, Pope Francis committed every bishop on earth to a threefold watchword: Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency. He introduced some paper reforms, chief among which was Vos estis lux mundi. Then, he proved remarkably reluctant to use the new tools he’d given himself. The reforms appear designed not to work. Now, we’re apparently back to pretending there’s nothing to see here.
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