The Vatican is considering the findings of a church investigation into “very serious and deeply distressing” child sexual abuse allegations against a former Australian bishop, a church leader said on Tuesday.
Christopher Saunders, now 73, resigned in 2021 as bishop of Broome, an Outback diocese of northwest Australia larger than France but with a population of only 50,000, after police announced they had dropped a sex crime investigation. He had stood down a year earlier after media reported the allegations.
The church investigation into Saunders began last year after the police investigation ended, said Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, the church’s most senior national leadership group.
A report of the investigation, overseen by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, had been sent to the Vatican where the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was continuing to investigate, Costelloe said.
The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the Vatican office that processes cases of clergy abuse of minors, according to the church’s in-house canon law.
“Bishop Saunders, who has maintained his innocence, is able to respond to the report by communicating directly with the Holy See,” Costelloe said in a statement.
“In due time, the Holy See will make its determination. It is hoped that this will not be unduly delayed,” Costelloe added.
Costelloe issued the statement after Australia’s Seven Network television news reported late Monday the contents of the 200-page Vatican report.
The report found Saunders likely sexually assaulted four Indigenous youths and potentially groomed another 67 Indigenous youths and men, Seven reported.
Costelloe declined to comment on specific allegations.
“The allegations against the former Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, broadcast on Monday evening are very serious and deeply distressing, especially for those making the allegations,” Costelloe said. “It is right and proper for them to be thoroughly investigated.”
The Western Australia Police Force said they had requested a copy of the Vatican report.
“If further information comes to light, police will investigate,” a police statement said.
Police had conducted two investigations into allegations against Saunders between 2018 and 2020. Prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to lay charges, police said.
Saunders is now Australia’s most senior cleric accused of child abuse in a scandal that has enveloped the church around the world.
Cardinal George Pell was the third highest-ranking cleric in the Vatican when he was convicted in an Australian court in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, when Pell was an archbishop.
Pell spent 13 months in prison before the convictions were overturned on appeal. He maintained his innocence until his death in Rome in January.
Saunders began working in Broome as a deacon in 1975 and became bishop in 1996.
— Its cover-up is causing many good people to lose faith and trust in the institutional Church
By Father Shay Cullen
The shocking truth about clerical sexual abuse of minors and women religious was revealed in research by Missio Aachen released in 2020. The pressures on women religious never to complain are immense. They are told by priests that suffering in silence is a great virtue.
Complaining of abuse invites retaliation and even expulsion from their congregation, the research reveals. These are secret crimes now being exposed around the world to the shame and embarrassment of the members of the institutional Church.
The abuse will end and the victims and survivors shall be free only when the truth is revealed, accountability is fixed and justice is done by convicting and punishing the abusers.
It seems that priests, called representatives of God once ordained, have a special entitlement to abuse minors and women religious, and enjoy impunity from accountability. That concept is now changing and a few abusive priests are being held accountable. However, putting them on trial is meeting strong resistance from some bishops and priests who protect clerical abusers.
Some Church authorities believe they and their priests are above the law of the state and some even flout the instructions of Pope Francis to report abuse. Denial and the covering-up of crimes by protecting the abusers is common practice, according to women religious who responded to the research questionnaire.
The research by Missio, a reliable, renowned, trustworthy international German Church-based organization, has gathered much evidence from women religious in Asia and Africa. Based on a professionally designed questionnaire that was circulated to women’s and men’s religious congregations and institutions, the results are disturbing and enlightening.
“It is not possible to speak openly about exploitation, oppression, sexual assault, etc. without having to fear acts of reprisal”
The short questionnaire had six core questions and a cover letter. It was designed “to give the respondents the maximum space to describe their experiences as well as their personal view in their own words.”
Missio received 101 completed questionnaires. “From the 101 completed questionnaires, 91 percent were completed by women, mostly by sisters belonging to a religious order and nine percent by men, all diocesan priests or priests belonging to a religious order.”
The majority of the respondents gave the issue of abuse of women religious a very high level of importance. When asked what the Church was doing to address the issue the overall answer was: “Not much was being done.”
In summary, the respondents reported the reasons for this inaction by Church authorities because of a culture of denial, a sense of entitlement and a policy to conceal crimes and cover-up.
Some respondents said speaking out against abuse is taboo. One respondent said, “it is not possible to speak openly about exploitation, oppression, sexual assault, etc. without having to fear acts of reprisal or reputational damage.”
Others said the “efforts to consider cases of abuse within the Church [e.g. to carry out a study on the subject], are thwarted.”
Another group said “priests [that abuse women religious] are not sanctioned but assigned to another parish.”
Another convent of nuns said that “after the abuse in a religious convent, we sent a letter to all the authorities concerned, no authority signaled or sent an acknowledgment of receipt.”
Others said “the local Church is not ready to speak up openly as it would be a scandal; rather they even try to dissuade those who have the courage to do so.”
Yet another said “experiences of violation and exploitation that women religious encounter in their lives is not acknowledged as abuse.”
“How can the abuse of children and women religious be ignored, covered up and tolerated on a massive scale?”
Besides, it works to the advantage of local Church authorities to keep women religious where they are because they remain “a silent and silenced lot.”
The vast majority of clergy are upright, good, spiritual and dedicated priests and brothers helping the unfortunate members of society especially where government fails the people. However, they mostly remain silent perhaps because they fear retaliation by their superior or bishop if they report clerical abuse.
How can the abuse of children and women religious be ignored, covered up and tolerated on a massive scale in the Church? How can it not be branded as a hypnotic institution failing to protect the most vulnerable of all?
This is changing with civil authorities bringing abusive clergy to trial and convicting them. In Cagayan in the northern Philippines, a Catholic priest put behind bars for child rape and sexual assault, and allegedly using video voyeurism to blackmail a 15-year-old child victim is a first. He admits the acts but says it was consensual, despite the alleged blackmail.
This criminal abuse and its cover-up are causing many good people to lose faith and trust in the institutional hierarchical Church and thousands have abandoned attending Mass and the sacraments.
When the sexual abuse of children and women religious causes people, especially children, to lose faith in Jesus himself, that is a grave and abominable sin.
Revelations and investigations into clerical abuse by civil authorities in dioceses in several countries showed that thousands of children have been abused by priests.
The Gospel teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is clear — that anyone who abuses a child and turns them away from trusting in him must be held accountable by tying a millstone around his neck and that person be thrown into the deep sea.
Make no mistake, Jesus saw child abuse as a heinous crime. (Matthew 18: 6-7, Mark 9:42, Luke17:2)
The bishops seem to ignore these strong Gospel teachings of Jesus. Doing so is a denial of Jesus himself. He said to accept one of these little ones is to accept him. The opposite can also be true. Abusing one child is to abuse Jesus.
— The French Catholic Church is facing new accusations of a sexual abuse scandal within Paris’s Foreign Missions Society, an organisation dedicated to spreading Christianity overseas. As a criminal investigation has been opened into accusations against three clergymen from the group, a FRANCE 24 investigation by journalists Karina Chabour and Julie Dungelhoeff sheds light on the allegations against the society.
Another scandal that the Catholic Church could have done without: three criminal inquiries have opened in France into two priests and one bishop accused of sexual abuse.
The three men accused are all from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), an organisation founded in France in the 17th century to convert overseas populations in Asia to Catholicism. Today it claims to have 150 priests based in 14 countries across India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Before the criminal inquiries were announced a FRANCE 24 team (in partnership with the Radio France investigations unit) was investigating the apostolic society to shed light on the inner workings of the prestigious institution suspected of covering up the acts of sexual predators working in its midst.
A series of scandals
The three criminal investigations now open in France concern two former missionaries in Japan, Father Philippe and Father Aymeric, as well as the bishop of La Rochelle, Georges Colomb, who is also the former superior general of the MEP.
They are respectively accused of rape, aggravated rape and attempted rape. They have not yet been charged with any crimes, and so are presumed innocent. Father Philippe and Georges Colomb deny the accusations against them. Father Aymeric did not respond to a request for comment made by FRANCE 24.
In a conversation recorded with Father Philippe’s permission by his accuser, the priest spoke of a “system” which he was introduced into when he was a seminarian with the MEP. He said his superiors initiated him into an active sex culture in which they held influence over him.
“I was a good new recruit… as a sexual object,” he said in tears.
The accusations against Father Philippe, Father Aymeric and Bishop Georges Colomb have all been made by alleged victims in France.
Yet accusations of sexual abuse against MEP members expand well beyond French borders.
FRANCE 24’s investigative team travelled to northwest Thailand, home to the Karen ethnic minority group, where it collected multiple witness statements accusing two priests of sexual aggression towards young children.
A code of silence
For more than 30 years, the village of Chong Kaep, close to the Myanmar border, was home to a boarding school run by Father Tygreat that housed up to 260 Karen children.
When Father Tygreat died in 2007, he left a complicated legacy. Residents in the region continue to celebrate the memory of the MEP missionary who, they say, came to bring knowledge and humanitarian aid.
But the priest’s sexual interest in young children also seems to be well known among locals. He is believed to have spent years offering the promise of a better future in exchange for sexual favours.
Father Tygreat was never investigated by police for his alleged crimes, but another MEP missionary in Thailand, Father Camille Rio, was perturbed by stories he heard about the late priest’s behaviour from a local who claimed to be one of his victims.
Camille Rio alerted his hierarchy within the MEP to the accusations in 2020.
“I was told that they had known about it for several months, that it was obviously all true, but that I had nothing to worry about,” he said. “As our lawyers had been consulted, the MEP was safe.”
Camille Rio said that his contact at the time was Gilles Reithinger, former superior general and current auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg.
Shocked by the response, the priest said he tried to raise the alarm again, multiple times, but to no avail.
At the same time, his relationship with the organisation began to deteriorate. Having returned to France, he is currently being prevented from returning to his mission in Thailand and his future within the organisation seems unclear.
Challenging the system
Asked about tensions between Camille Rio and the organisation, Superior General of the MEP Vincent Sénéchal said: “Father Camille Rio has led a number of projects. Unfortunately, the situation is tense and we hope that it can get better.”
Sénéchal maintained that the accusations against members were isolated incidents. “There is no culture of abuse within the Foreign Missions Society. We do not protect anyone who has crossed the red line of the law here.”
“The fact that one person or another has not respected their celibacy, or that another person has been caught up in individual failings, doesn’t make it systematic,” he said.
At the same time, there are a significant number of accusations that implicate the highest levels of the organisation, and the profiles of the alleged victims often point towards their vulnerability.
In France, one victim was said to have been forced into nonconsensual sexual acts for financial reasons. A victim in Japan who claims to have been raped is on the autistic spectrum.
Attackers allegedly used the homosexuality of some victims – still a potent taboo in the Catholic Church – to their advantage. “If you are Catholic and gay there is shame, so we hide it,” said one whistle-blower. “Making a complaint would mean coming out as gay to everyone.”
Testimonies also claim that MEP members were able to take advantage of the prestigious reputation of their organisation in the eyes of its followers and the church hierarchy.
“At the heart of the Vatican, priests who work for the Paris Foreign Missions Society are given an attentive ear because they operate in areas that are difficult to reach. They are the messengers,” said Sophie Lebrun, journalist for French Christian publication “La Vie”. “They have an aura about them.”
The MEP said it is taking the accusations, which are now the subject of an internal inquiry, very seriously. Sénéchal announced in May 2023 the launch of a vast independent inquiry led by a private external company into abuse at the heart of the MEP since 1950.
Multiple sources in Thailand that spoke to FRANCE 24 indirectly incriminated a second MEP priest, as well as Father Tygreat, who used to work in the country and is still practicing in Asia. Father Camille Rio also reported this priest to the MEP.
The organisation said that an investigation into the priest led by the local superior “had interviewed 11 people and did not establish a credible claim for assault”.
The documentary reveals the limits of this internal inquiry: facing the camera, the superior general of the MEP admits that it has not actively sought out victims due to a belief that doing so would risk forcing them to relive their trauma.
“There’s a difference between going out to find people and saying, ‘you were alive in this year, did anything happen?’ That is a proactive approach,” Sénéchal said. “What we have done is work with the information that we have available to us.”
The accumulation of accusations against the MEP has also not prevented two members climbing the ranks within the French Catholic Church.
Despite multiple warnings sent to his superiors, MEP priest Georges Colomb became bishop of La Rochelle in 2016. He is currently under investigation in France and in June asked to retire from his position during the police investigation.
His successor as superior general of the MEP, Gilles Reithinger, became auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg in June 2021. Reithinger has denied any role in the sex scandals currently affecting the MEP and is not the subject of any legal investigations.
A childhood sexual abuse case involving a priest who was one of Orange County’s most notorious predators is expected to be among the first of a massive wave of lawsuits filed against Roman Catholic dioceses statewide that are on track to go to trial next year.
More than fifteen years after a string of dioceses — include Orange County and Los Angeles — agreed to pay hundreds of millions related to hundreds of claims of sexual abuse by the clergy, an even larger wave of litigation is on the horizon due to a state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for such cases, opening a three-year window to allow now-adult survivors to file lawsuits related to decades-old abuse.
Roughly 2,000 Southern California childhood sexual assault cases allegedly involving the Catholic church were filed in Southern California during the three-year window, including roughly 250 against the Orange County Diocese, according to attorney Morgan Stewart, whose high-profile Orange County-based firm — Manly, Stewart & Finaldi — is among those representing the numerous plaintiffs.
The lawsuits tied to Orange and Los Angeles counties have been consolidated and assigned to a Los Angeles judge. One of the lawsuits brought by Stewart and his firm is the first to be allowed by the judge to move forward for trial in Los Angeles, the attorney said, setting the stage for an expected trial early next year.
The case involves Father Eleuterio Ramos, who before his death admitted to sexually assaulting more than two dozen boys during a decades-long career that included stops in multiple parishes across Orange County, as well as Father Siegfried Widera, who at the time of his death was one of the most wanted sex crime fugitives in North America.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit said he was molested by Ramos beginning at the age of 5 when he was a minor parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Santa Ana around 1979 or 1980, and later sexually abused by Widera around 1984 and 1985 when he was about 10-years-old.
“It is possibly the worst case (the diocese) probably could have gotten out the door,” Stewart said of Ramos. “He had no discretion. He didn’t stop himself. Nobody stopped him.”
Stewart says he now also has new evidence bolstering the long-held contention by victims’ attorneys that church leaders at the time actively knew about the sexual abuse of minors and covered it up.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, a now-retired alcohol counselor who worked at a treatment center for clergy members in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s recalled the center admitting Father Ramos for treatment after Diocese of Orange leaders referred him for treatment related to alcoholism and “sexual impulses related to sexual abuse of minors.” Diocese leaders overruled the counselor’s recommendation that Ramos not be placed back into the ministry, the former counselor said in her statement.
“I learned it was common practice at that time for the Bishops who referred us priests who abused minors to move those priests into other parishes or churches upon their return,” the counselor said in her statement. “This is what occurred with Father Ramos, despite my concerns that I communicated about his potential to re-offend.”
Stewart alleged that the sole concern for church leaders at the time was “to hide these guys and send them out of the jurisdiction of law enforcement.”
“Where is the concern for the kids?” Stewart said. “That is going to inflame a jury beyond belief.”
Jarryd Gonzales, a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, said the organization “remains steadfast in its commitment to eradicating the abuse of children and vulnerable adults and to providing a voice and support to those who have suffered.” He noted that clergy, employees and volunteers are now required to undergo fingerprinting, background checks and “recurring safe environment training.”
He added, “The Diocese of Orange deeply regrets any past incidences of sexual abuse. Those words are backed up by actions: the Diocese has undertaken extensive and diligent efforts for more than 20 years to safeguard children and vulnerable adults and prevent future abuse.”
In response to the allegations raised in the lawsuit, Gonzales said the church as a general rule doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but noted that discovery — the exchanging of information between the attorneys about the witnesses and evidence expected to be presented at trial — in the case is in the “very early stages.”
“The Diocese intends to let the facts uncovered in discovery guide its response to this lawsuit,” Gonzales said. “And as to an alleged cover-up: the plaintiff’s allegations — which date to 1979 — were never brought to the attention of the Diocese (or law enforcement) prior to the filing of the lawsuit in 2020.”
The previous wave of childhood sexual abuse lawsuits ended with settlements prior to jury trials, including a then-record $100 million settlement by the Diocese of Orange covering 90 cases in 2004 followed by the Los Angeles Archdiocese settling 508 cases for $660 million in 2007. In Orange County, the settlement came with apologies to the victims by church leaders.
The new wave of lawsuits has already led several dioceses in California to either file for bankruptcy or contemplate doing so, including the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the Diocese of Oakland and the San Francisco Archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange have not indicated any plans to pursue bankruptcy.
A comprehensive, yearlong investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Switzerland released on Tuesday has documented more than 1,000 instances of abuse dating back to the mid-20th century.
The Swiss Bishops’ Conference commissioned the groundbreaking study by the University of Zurich’s Historical Seminar, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.
“The findings expose deep-rooted issues that go beyond the actions of individual perpetrators to systemic causes that Church leaders must answer for,” said Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel, president of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, in an immediate response to the study.
The 136-page report documents 1,002 cases of abuse since the mid-20th century involving 510 accused and 921 victims. The research team cautioned that these figures represent “only the tip of the iceberg,” as numerous archives remain unevaluated.
The study also highlighted a systematic cover-up within the church. “Church criminal law was scarcely enforced for much of the study period. Instead, many cases were deliberately concealed or minimized,” the report stated. It further revealed that Church leaders often transferred accused clerics, sometimes internationally, to evade secular prosecution.
The report summary indicated that 39% of the victims were female, while just under 56% were male. “In almost all cases, the accused were men, and 74% of the evaluated files evidenced sexual abuse of minors,” the report added.
Gmür emphasized the need for future studies to explore “Catholic specifics” that may have contributed to the abuse, such as sexual morality and celibacy. “This guilt cannot simply be erased. It must be confronted, focusing on the Church’s power dynamics and sexual ethics,” he said.
The Swiss Bishops’ Conference pledged to take action. “We will establish and fund independent reporting offices to facilitate the reporting of abuses,” Gmür said, according to CNA Deutsch.
Gmür also stated that all related documents would be preserved indefinitely to prevent further cover-ups.
On Sunday, the Swiss Bishops’ Conference disclosed an ongoing Vatican-led investigation into handling abuse allegations, expected to conclude by the end of the year.
Allegations against several members of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference were forwarded to the Dicastery for Bishops in Rome, which has appointed Bishop Joseph Bonnemain of the Swiss Diocese of Chur to lead the inquiry.