Pope Francis has announced sweeping changes to the way the Roman Catholic Church deals with cases of sexual abuse of minors, abolishing the rule of “pontifical secrecy” that has been criticised as a means to protect paedophiles, silence victims and prevent police from investigating alleged crimes.
Advocates for the victims of the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Church for nearly 20 years applauded Tuesday’s move as being long overdue, but said it had to be applied broadly.
Pontifical secrecy is a rule of confidentiality designed to protect sensitive information related to Church governance, such as diplomatic correspondence, personnel issues and alleged crimes.
Waiving the practice in sex abuse investigations was a key demand by Church leaders, including Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, at a summit on sexual abuse held at the Vatican in February.
Proponents of the move argued that secrecy in cases of sexual abuse of minors was outdated and that some Church officials were hiding behind it instead of cooperating with authorities.
“This is an epochal decision,” Scicluna, the Vatican’s most experienced sex abuse investigator, told Vatican Radio on Tuesday.
Two documents issued by the pope support practices that are already in place in some countries, particularly the United States, such as reporting suspicions of sexual abuse to civil authorities where required by law.
However, they stop short of mandating bishops and religious superiors to do so, saying they are obliged to report suspicions of abuse where civil reporting laws require it.
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 in different parts of the world, from Belgium to Chile.
Victims said the decision would allow for more transparency and sharing of information with authorities while keeping a lower level of confidentiality similar to civil legal structures.
“Excellent news … at last a real and positive change,” Marie Collins, who was abused by a priest in her native Ireland as a girl and resigned in frustration from a papal commission on abuse because of what she saw as Vatican resistance, wrote on Twitter.
Anne Barret-Doyle, co-director of the US-based abuse documentation group BishopAccountability.org, said Francis had taken “an overdue and desperately needed step” but that its effect will be determined by how broadly it was applied.
Excellent news. Recommended by PCPM during first term, so good to see it being implement. At last a real and positive change. https://t.co/8ZKm2TKRR7
— Marie Collins (@marielco) December 17, 2019
For his part, Scicluna, the archbishop, said the new provisions opened up ways to communicate with victims and cooperate with the state.
“Certain jurisdictions would have easily quoted the pontifical secret … to say that they could not, and that they were not authorised to share information with either state authorities or the victims,” Scicluna said.
“Now that impediment, we might call it that way, has been lifted, and the pontifical secret is no more an excuse,” he added.
Francis also raised from 14 to 18 the cutoff age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography. The reform is in response to the Vatican’s increasing awareness of the prolific spread of online child porn that has frequently implicated churchmen.
Last year, a Vatican court sentenced a Catholic priest to five years in jail for possessing child pornography while he was based in the US as a diplomat.
The new norms are the latest amendment to the 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 most severe punishment a priest can incur is being defrocked or dismissed from the clerical state.
Francis has promised zero tolerance for offenders but victims of abuse want him to do more and make bishops who allegedly covered up the abuse accountable.
In May, the pope passed a landmark measure to oblige those who know about sex abuse to report it to their superiors, a move expected to bring even more cases to light.
In Tuesday’s announcement, issued on the Argentine pontiff’s 83rd birthday, Francis spelt out the new obligations.
“The person who files the report, the person who alleged to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case,” he wrote.
Also on Tuesday, Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the Holy See’s ambassador to France, who has been accused of sexual molestation. Ventura turned 75 last week, the mandatory retirement age for bishops.