The Catholic Church is maintaining its silence on the status of its ongoing investigation into the leadership and financial practices in its Broome diocese in West Australia’s Kimberley region.
Catholic Bishop of Broome Christopher Saunders voluntarily stood aside in March after the Vatican took the unusual step of ordering an investigation into the running of the remote northern diocese.
On March 11 the Holy See ordered an apostolic visitation — a church-led investigation aimed at improving the diocese.
Bishop Saunders, 70, has remained living in a church-owned property in Broome but did not attend the recent biennial meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
The Vatican inquiry came in the wake of a series of complaints to catholic authorities and the public revelation of a WA Police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Bishop Saunders has not responded to requests for comment, but has previously denied any wrongdoing.
Representatives from the Perth Archdiocese and the Apostolic Nunciature to Australia, the Vatican’s Australian ambassador, declined to comment on the status of the investigation or a timeframe for its likely completion.
Churchgoers in the dark as inquiries proceed
Parishioners in Broome have told the ABC that the visitation, overseen by retired Bishop of Wollongong Peter Ingham, began when he arrived in March, however he left within two weeks as COVID-19 travel restrictions loomed.
Bishop Ingham has since conducted interviews with former staff and parishioners by phone.
The discussions have focused on Bishop Saunders’ management style, financial practices, and visits to remote Aboriginal parishes.
Separate to this, WA Police have continued to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct.
No charges have been laid and the ABC understands that there has so far not been sufficient cause for police to interview Bishop Saunders.
The recent use of online church services has reduced the impact of the Bishop’s absence.
Some parishioners told the ABC they were worried Bishop Saunders was the subject of a witch-hunt, while others were glad the operations of the diocese were coming under scrutiny.
Professional allegations the likely focus
Canon law researcher, author and retired lawyer Kieran Tapsell said the church would usually wait for police proceedings relating to a specific matter, such as sexual misconduct, to conclude before it started its own internal process.
“Towards Healing, which was the protocol started in 1996, actually had a provision that if there was going to be any police investigation then the church investigators would wait until that was over,” he said.
“It’s not church law, it’s simply a protocol or gentleman’s agreement between bishops that that’s how they’d behave.
Mr Tapsell said the protocol meant Bishop Ingham was likely to focus on the question of professional breaches rather than any allegations of criminality.
‘Does not happen often in Australia’
Mr Tapsell, who has written extensively on canon law, said the Vatican rarely instigated such investigations.
He said the visitation would result in a report submitted directly to the Vatican.
“It is significant in that it doesn’t happen very often in Australia,” Mr Tapsell said.
“With an apostolic visitation interviews take place, and evidence gathered, and then the bishop sends all the material to Rome with his opinion as to what should happen.”
Apostolic visitations are shrouded in secrecy, and the findings are rarely made public.
The catalyst can be allegations of criminal wrongdoing or relate to financial management or breaches of doctrine.
For example, the most recent visitation in Australia, prior to that in the diocese of Broome, was the 2007 investigation into Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba.
It led to a very public stand-off over Bishop Morris’s views on the ordination of women and married men that culminated in the Bishop being dismissed.
Bishops’ conference underway
Bishop Saunders opted not to attend the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, held from the May 7–14.
The conference is held every two years and brings together the bishops representing all 28 dioceses and archdioceses of Australia.
A spokesman for the conference said the Broome diocese was not represented at the conference:
Bishop Saunders also appeared to have bowed out of the much larger Plenary Council 2020 assembly, about the future of the Catholic Church in Australia, scheduled for later this year.
The Broome diocese would instead be represented by Monsignor Paul Boyers, who has been overseeing the running of the diocese indefinitely.