The Vatican has appointed Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, to oversee an investigation into the former bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders.

The case is understood to be the first application of “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” in Australia, the norms promulgated by Pope Francis in 2019. 

Saunders stepped aside as bishop of Broome in March 2020 after media reports that Western Australia Police Force had begun an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

At the conclusion of its investigation, Western Australia Police confirmed that no charges would be brought against Saunders, prompting critics to call on police to “put up or shut up.”

Saunders later tendered his resignation to Pope Francis, which was accepted in August 2021. 

Saunders has steadfastly denied the allegations, which were made by Aboriginal men from remote communities in the West Kimberley region, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The diocese in Western Australia covers the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of the state — an area bigger than Texas. About 35,000 people live on almost 300,000 square miles, of which just under a third are Catholic. 

The accused, who has served as priest and bishop in the diocese for almost 50 years, will reside outside the diocese during the Church’s investigation, according to a letter published Saturday by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference that was read at Masses in the Diocese of Broome over the weekend. 

The document, signed by Apostolic Administrator Bishop Michael Morrisey and Archbishop Coleridge, said the Church investigation “could not happen” until the police inquiries ended.

More in Asia - Pacific

“The Church’s protocols, particularly those enshrined in Pope Francis’ document ‘Vos Estis Lux Mundi,’ mean the outcome of a police investigation does not prevent the Church from conducting its own inquiry,” Coleridge said.

He added that “a team of people who are highly qualified to conduct this investigation in a thorough way” had been appointed.

Coleridge said with the investigation now underway, it would be improper to make additional comments until the outcome could be announced.

Saunders was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Broome in 1976. He was born in Melbourne. In 1989, he became the diocesan administrator and was consecrated as the bishop of Broome in 1995.