Australian bishop charged with sex crimes

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An Australian bishop is facing accusations of rape and indecent assault, becoming one of the most senior Catholics in the country to be charged with sex crimes.

Emeritus Bishop Christopher Alan Saunders was arrested in Western Australia on Wednesday evening after a high-powered internal Vatican investigation spurred child abuse detectives into action.

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Police said he has been charged with 14 counts of unlawful and indecent assault and two counts of sexual penetration without consent -- a legal term for rape.

The 74-year-old, who is due to front court on Thursday, has also been charged with three counts of “indecently dealing with a child” between 16 and 18 years old.

Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the allegations were “deeply distressing”.

“It is right and proper, and indeed necessary, that all such allegations be thoroughly investigated,” he said in a statement.

Court documents show Saunders’ alleged offences took place between 2008 and 2014.

For more than 20 years, Saunders presided over the Diocese of Broome, a sweeping coastal region in northwest Australia dotted with dozens of remote Aboriginal communities.

He stood down as bishop in 2020 when allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced in local media -- but retained the honorary title of “emeritus bishop”.

An initial police investigation failed to unearth sufficient evidence to charge Saunders, who has been steadfast in his denials.

But with persistent rumours swirling around the clergyman, the Vatican launched its own probe in 2022 using sweeping powers first established by Pope Francis.

The “Vos estis lux mundi” powers -- meaning “You are the light of the world” in Latin -- were drawn up in 2019 to help the church investigate sexual abuse accusations at the highest levels.

The confidential church findings were later shared with police, who subsequently reopened their investigation.

George Pell, the late Australian cardinal and Vatican powerbroker, was imprisoned on sexual abuse charges in 2019 -- but his convictions were quashed the next year.

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