Pope Francis: No more "pontifical secret" confidentiality for internal sex-abuse documentation

Bombshell change in the Vatican today, or the natural evolution of episcopal reform? In a decree published today, Pope Francis declared that the Catholic Church will no longer apply “pontifical secret” confidentiality status to any internal documents relating to sexual abuse of minors, a move long demanded by activists. The decree will make it easier for people within the church to cooperate with prosecutors, and marks a significant step forward for reform:

Pope Francis has lifted the secrecy requirement for Catholic Church documents related to priests’ sexual abuse of minors, granting a longstanding demand from activists who say it will help civil authorities gather evidence against abusers in the church.

In a decree published by the Vatican Tuesday, the pope ruled that the “pontifical secret” binding church officials to confidentiality doesn’t apply to evidence and legal proceedings regarding clerical sex abuse or its coverup.

“Office confidentiality shall not prevent the fulfillment 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,” said the decree, which Pope Francis approved earlier this month.

That is a major change in official position, one perhaps long overdue in dealing with the decades-long sexual abuse crisis. Violating the pontifical-secret classification carries severe penalties within the church:

The prelate, who leads the archdiocese of Malta while also serving as adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, highlighted the fact that survivors who report abuse can now more easily follow the church’s handling of their cases.

Scicluna also predicted that the change would have a significant impact in dioceses around the world. “The other aspect is that local church jurisdictions cannot quote the pontifical secret to avoid either cooperating or sharing with the authorities,” he said.

Most matters handled by offices at the Vatican are kept under a base level of secrecy known as the “secret of the office,” but more serious issues have traditionally been subject to the pontifical secret, violation of which can trigger severe penalties, including excommunication.

Broadly speaking, the pontifical secret had previously applied to all penal procedures undertaken by the doctrinal congregation. It still applies in a range of other areas, including the Vatican’s diplomatic cables and on early knowledge of unannounced appointments of bishops and cardinals.

It does not mean, though, that the Catholic Church will make this information widely available to all inquiries. The decree specifies that this applies when dealing with civil authorities, including criminal and civil litigation and investigation. Otherwise, the documents and testimony will remain confidential for privacy purposes:

The instruction notes, however, that information related to cases of abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, and of child pornography, should still be treated with “security, integrity and confidentiality” in accordance with canon 471 of the Code of Canon Law, “for the sake of protecting the good name, image and privacy of all persons involved.”

Canon 471 binds those who work in curial offices to fulfill their function faithfully and to observe secrecy in accordance with church law or in the manner determined by the bishop.

Essentially, this follows the same policies as other organizations, which keeps such matters confidential internally while cooperating with civil authorities and fulfilling reporting requirements. It puts more momentum behind reform efforts in the US and elsewhere to push for greater transparency. Here in the US especially, it might finally break a logjam ahead of multiple investigations by attorneys general in several states to pry open the vault of documentation relating to the handling of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. The success of Pennsylvania in exposing hundreds of cases over the last several decades made more such investigations inevitable.

In fact, though, the Catholic Church has been moving toward this transparency for a while in practice, even if not necessarily in decree. This step puts the papacy even more firmly behind the episcopal conferences that have pressed for more firm reforms in the dioceses. If it accelerates the opening of records and the redress of real injustices and abuses, it’s well worth the step forward. Even if it’s just a symbolic action, though, Pope Francis has wisely set it in the direction of reform.

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