Pope Francis has abolished the “pontifical secret” code of confidentiality used in clergy sexual abuse cases, after mounting criticism that the obligation has been used to protect paedophiles, silence victims and keep authorities from investigating crimes.
In a new document issued on Tuesday, Francis decreed that information in abuse cases must be protected by church leaders to ensure its “security, integrity and confidentiality”.
But he also said the “pontifical secret” code no longer applies to abuse-related accusations, trials and decisions under the Catholic Church’s canon law.
Francis also raised from 14 to 18 the cut-off age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography.
The new laws were issued on Tuesday – Francis’ 83rd birthday – as he struggles to respond to the global explosion of the abuse scandal, his own missteps in dealing with the issue, and demands for greater transparency and accountability from victims, law enforcement and ordinary Catholics alike.
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 Benedict XVI had decreed in 2001 that these cases must be dealt with under “pontifical secret”, the highest form of secrecy in the church. The Vatican had long insisted that such confidentiality was necessary to protect the privacy of the victim, the reputation of the accused and the integrity of the canonical process.
However, such secrecy also served to keep the scandal hidden, to prevent law enforcement from accessing documents and to silence victims, many of whom often believed that “pontifical secret” prevented them from going to the police to report their priestly abusers.
While the Vatican has long tried to insist this is not the case, it has never mandated that bishops and religious superiors report sex crimes to police, and in the past has encouraged bishops not to do so.
According to the new instruction, which was signed by the Vatican secretary of state but authorised by the pope, the Vatican still does not mandate reporting the crimes to police, saying religious superiors are obliged to do so where civil reporting laws require it.
But it goes further than the Vatican has gone before, saying: “Office confidentiality shall not prevent the fulfilment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws, including any reporting obligations, and the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities.”
Faith gives us the ability to look with hope at the events of life, and helps us to accept even defeats and sufferings, in the knowledge that evil never has the last word.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) December 14, 2019
The Vatican has been under increasing pressure to cooperate more with law enforcement, and its failure to do so has resulted in unprecedented raids in recent years on diocesan chanceries by police from Belgium to Texas and Chile.
But even under the penalty of subpoenas and raids, bishops have sometimes felt compelled to withhold canonical proceedings given the “pontifical secret”, unless given permission to hand documents over by the Vatican. The new law means this explicit permission is no longer required.
Individual scandals, national inquiries, grand jury investigations, UN denunciations and increasingly costly civil litigation have devastated the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility across the globe, and Francis’ own failures and missteps on the issue have emboldened his critics.
In February, he summoned the presidents of bishops conferences from around the globe to a four-day summit on preventing abuse, where several speakers called for a reform of the pontifical secret.
Francis himself said he intended to raise the age for which pornography was considered child porn.