Bishop of Broome’s resignation raises big questions for the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Australia, at its highest levels, has it learned anything from Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on good governance, transparency and justice for those on the margins? The resignation of the Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, has left a significant level of unrest and conflict within the diocese. He is 71 years old and it is unusual that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of a bishop below the normal retirement age of 75.
The case has proven itself very controversial. Allegations of sexual misconduct have been aired, along with allegations of significant management issues – which the bishop has firmly denied. So what can or should the church do when such serious allegations linger in the public mind?
Unclear reasons for leaving?
News of Bishop Saunders’ resignation was recently announced in the Vatican daily bulletin, Bollettino, but no reason was given. The canon law of the Church allows a bishop to resign before the usual retirement age of 75 if he is “less able to perform his duties due to ill health or other serious cause” (Canon 401 §2).
Bishop Saunders has written publicly, for the first time in two years, explaining that on the advice of medical experts he concluded that he was “no longer able to adequately meet the needs of a large diocese. and diverse like Kimberley’s with all of its inherent challenges ”, and that his“ decision to step down was made after much thought and prayer ”. The Rev. Paul Boyers, former Apostolic Administrator of Broome, wrote that he wishes “Bishop Saunders a pleasant and fruitful retirement”.
But other questions that have been raised regarding the bishop. Allegations were first reported and then investigated by WA Police as part of “Operation White Plane” in 2018. These involved allegations of sexual misconduct with young Aboriginal men. Bishop Saunders strongly denies these allegations. We do not know the details of the WA Police investigation.
In May 2021, WA Police concluded that they would not lay charges. ABC reporter Erin Parke wrote that it appeared the church “had suspended the investigation into the case while the WA Police investigation was live.” Canon lawyer Dr Rodger Austin has officially said that a recent “apostolic visit” focused on issues other than allegations of sexual misconduct because church law prevents him from conducting an investigation before. the end of any active police investigation. This police investigation is now over.
At first glance, it would appear to be simply a case of early retirement. And there will be many people in the Diocese of Broome who will accept this version of events. Early retirement would imply that Bishop Saunders is a bishop in good standing. As a “retired” bishop, this would imply that he could attend the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference with an advisory vote, and be able to continue in pastoral ministry, provided he receives accreditation. appropriate.
A remote, borderline diocese like Broome has its own special demands, but there remains unrest among the residents of that diocese, as Erin Parke’s report shows. It seems that the confidentiality necessary in any investigation collides with the public’s need to know. Without transparency, we cannot see if there is a basis for the bishop to be definitively defended against his accusers. Without transparency, it is also difficult for the public to regain confidence in the administration of the local church, especially after the disturbing findings of the Royal commission.
Other administrative matters in the Diocese of Broome were serious enough to warrant an apostolic visit in 2020, an exceptional visit initiated by the Vatican, where an outside person is sent to investigate a problematic situation of the local church. Bishop Peter Ingham, retired Bishop of Wollongong, has been mandated by the authority of the Pope to lead this inspection. The process by which Rome decided on an apostolic visit remains uncertain, but may have been triggered in part by media reports from Western Australia. The public does not know the results of this investigation.
The Diocese of Broome went through this internal church review early last year. Bishop Saunders voluntarily stepped aside during this investigation. Bishop Ingham looked at the management of personnel and finances within the diocese. As Erin Park reported, “the findings of this review … were submitted to the Holy See last year but have not been made public.”
What does ecclesiastical law say?
While the church recognizes that civil law generally takes precedence, church law may also be applicable. In 2019, Pope Francis released a new set of international Catholic demands for the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse, titled Your Estis Lux Mundi (“You are the light of the world”). This document deals specifically with offenses against children and “vulnerable adults”. Your Estis now also makes sexual offenses a crime in Church law, and includes religious brothers and lay leaders, as well as clerics. Depending on the level of evidence available, a canonical investigation may begin after civil law proceedings are completed. This is because, in addition to local secular laws, canon law contains specific requirements that may merit ecclesiastical sanctions.
For internal church investigations, a key question is: who has the authority to investigate a bishop in his own diocese? This is because there is no ordinary independent mechanism in the worldwide Catholic Church for such an investigation. Your Estis demands that clerics and religious report serious allegations to the local ordinary – the local bishop. In Broome, that would have been Bishop Saunders. In the case of the denunciation of a bishop, the denunciation must henceforth be made to the “Metropolitan archbishop”, who runs a Province from several dioceses. In Western Australia, the metropolitan is Bishop Timothy Costelloe from Perth. But a metropolitan has fairly limited powers of intervention.
When asked if the Metropolitan initiated Broome’s apostolic visitation, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Perth replied: “The authority to organize and conduct an apostolic visit rests with the Holy See. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for the Archdiocese of Perth to speculate or provide commentary on factors that the Holy See independently considers regarding its decision to organize apostolic visitation in any diocese.
Belgian expert in canon law Rik Torfs explained in detail a hierarchical problem inherent in the Catholic Church, namely the “Absence of separation of powers”. The church does not have the checks and balances of an independent judiciary. A bishop in his own diocese is at the top of the hierarchical food chain, responsible directly to the Pope through the papal nuncio. Without extraordinary papal intervention, the internal authority of the church is very limited to investigate bishops. A bishop usually retains authority over any investigation within his own diocese. What we’ve seen recently in Broome is tremendous outside intervention.
Within religious circles (as in secular law), there are different levels of evidence and evidence that can be considered before sanctions or consequences can be imposed. Until now, “moral certainty” has been the traditional Catholic standard of proof to justify sanctions. It simply requires that the cleric in authority have personal moral certainty that an event has occurred. “Moral certainty” does not require “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”, but certainty based on objective reasons as to the reality of the facts. Sanctions can be imposed either by judicial means (a lawsuit) or by administrative means. A person has the right to appeal against a judgment, or appeal on the sanctions applied administratively.
For example, say a bishop was convinced that one of his priests was running a business and was breaking the rule of celibacy, or guilty of maladministration. Before acting, the bishop was not canonically required to possess proof at the “beyond a reasonable doubt” level. The bishop could penalize or even dismiss the priest provided he has moral certainty that an offense has been committed. In the event of administrative dismissal, an “appeal” is possible. If it is rejected after an ecclesiastical trial, then an “appeal” is possible – much like secular law.
Recent revisions of ecclesiastical law
Book VI of the International Code of Canon Law (which deals with “Sanctions in the Church”) has recently been revised. Three major reforms are particularly interesting. First of all, a new Canon, 1321, formally affirms the “presumption of innocence”. This is a major step for the Code of Canon Law, which is not an adversarial system, in that it favors the truth of the matter before the court. Australian criminal law is based only on what the evidence shows.
Second, there are changes in the church’s criminal laws – how internal trials and punishments are to be conducted. The new Canon 1395 §3 now specifically states that secularization (or defrocking) is the sanction for sexual offenses against minors and vulnerable adults.
Third, around canon 1376, there are sanctions reforms for financial maladministration – including disqualification. These international reforms entered into force on December 8, 2021.
That being said, there is no ecclesiastical penalty to discuss in Bishop Saunders’ case. As he wrote, he is retiring on medical advice. But Broome’s recent process highlights some important questions about how justice can be pursued and delivered, especially given the similarities and differences between church law and secular law.
Noel Debien is a specialist in religions at the ABC.