Pope Francis has just ended a rule that kept sexual abuses cases in the Vatican secret from authorities, granting law enforcement access to documents and testimonies from sexual abuse investigations that up until now were kept confidential within the Catholic Church.
The rule was called “pontifical secret” by has just been replaced by the following policy,
“The person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case.”
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The Pope has declared that the rule of "pontifical secrecy" no longer applies to the sexual abuse of minors, in a bid to improve transparency in such cases.
The Church previously shrouded sexual abuse cases in secrecy, in what it said was an effort to protect the privacy of victims and reputations of the accused.
But new papal documents on Tuesday lifted restrictions on those who report abuse or say they have been victims.
Church leaders called for the rule's abolition at a February Vatican summit.
They said the lifting of the rule in such cases would improve transparency and the ability of the police and other civil legal authorities to request information from the Church.
Information in abuse cases should still be treated with "security, integrity and confidentiality", the Pope said in his announcement. He instructed Vatican officials to comply with civil laws and assist civil judicial authorities in investigating such cases.
The Pope also changed the Vatican's definition of child pornography, increasing the age of the subject from 14 or under to 18 or under.
Charles Scicluna, the Archbishop of Malta and the Vatican's most experienced sex abuse investigator, called the move an "epochal decision that removes obstacles and impediments", telling Vatican news that "the question of transparency now is being implemented at the highest level".
Pope Francis abolished the use of the Vatican’s highest level of secrecy in clergy sexual abuse cases Tuesday, responding to mounting criticism that the rule of “pontifical secrecy” has been used to protect pedophiles, silence victims and prevent police from investigating crimes.
Victims and their advocates cheered the move as long overdue, but cautioned that the proof of its effectiveness would come when the Catholic hierarchy is forced to respond to national inquiries, grand jury subpoenas and criminal prosecutors who are increasingly demanding all internal documentation about abusers.
“The carnival of obscurity is over,” declared Juan Carlos Cruz, a prominent Chilean survivor of clergy abuse and advocate for victims.
In a new law, Francis decreed that information in abuse cases must be protected by church leaders to ensure its “security, integrity and confidentiality.” But he said the rule of “pontifical secrecy” no longer applied to abuse-related accusations, trials and decisions under the Catholic Church’s canon law.
The Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, said the reform was an “epochal decision” that will facilitate coordination with civil law enforcement and open up lines of communication with victims.
While documentation from the church’s in-house legal proceedings will still not become public, Scicluna said, the reform now removes any excuse to not cooperate with legitimate legal requests from prosecutors, police or other civil authorities.
Francis also raised from 14 to 18 the cutoff age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography. The reform is a response to the Vatican’s increasing awareness of the prolific spread of online child porn that has frequently implicated even high-ranking churchmen.
The new laws were issued Tuesday, Francis’ 83rd birthday, as he struggles to respond to the global explosion of the abuse scandal, his own missteps and demands for greater transparency and accountability from victims, law enforcement and ordinary Catholics alike.
“The reforms are long overdue but symbolize an important step in the right direction,” said SNAP, the victims advocacy group. “Still right now they are only words on paper and what needs to happen next is concrete action.”
The new norms are the latest amendment to the Catholic Church’s in-house canon law — a parallel legal code that metes out ecclesial justice for crimes against the faith — in this case relating to the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable people by priests, bishops or cardinals. In this legal system, the worst punishment a priest can incur is being defrocked, or dismissed from the clerical state.
Pope Francis is giving legal authorities access to documents and testimony about sexual abuse cases that were previously kept under the Catholic Church's highest level of confidentiality. By abolishing the concept known as the "pontifical secret" when it comes to clergy misconduct, Francis will also let victims see more information about their cases — and speak out about their experience.
"The person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case," according to the new policy, which was instituted Tuesday in the form of a rescript — a church decree approved by Francis and signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin.
The changes apply to cases of clergy committing violence or sexual assaults against anyone under their authority, as well as minors. The new policy also extends to related cases about a lack of reporting abuse and attempts to cover up accusations.
"The well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the 'pontifical' secret," says Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican's Dicastery for Communications.
"As sex abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church over the last few decades, there's been mounting criticism that pontifical secrecy was used to protect pedophiles, silence victims and prevent law enforcement from investigations," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
"The pontifical secret was essentially the 'Top Secret' for the Vatican," says the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, Joshua McElwee. "It was imposed officially in 1974 as a way of trying to protect the name of both the accuser and the accused until the point at which there had been a firm judgment."