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Pope abolishes ‘pontifical secret’ in clergy sex abuse cases

CITY (AP) — Pope Francis abolished the “pontifical secret” used in
clergy sexual abuse cases Tuesday, responding to mounting criticism that
the high degree of confidentiality has been used to protect pedophiles,
silence victims and prevent police from investigating crimes.

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 “pontifical secret,” the highest form of
confidentiality in the church, no longer applies to abuse-related
accusations, trials and decisions under the Catholic Church’s canon law.

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 authorities.

also raised from 14 to 18 the cutoff age below which the Vatican
considers pornographic images to be child pornography — a response to
the Vatican’s increasing awareness of the prolific spread of online
child porn that has frequently implicated even high-ranking churchmen.

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 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, when he was
a cardinal, had persuaded the pope to decree 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.

such secrecy also served to keep the scandal hidden, prevent law
enforcement from accessing documents and 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 was not the case, it also 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 authorized by the pope, the Vatican still doesn’t 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 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.”

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 makes that explicit
permission no longer required.

“The freedom of information to
statutory authorities and to victims is something that is being
facilitated by this new law,” Scicluna told Vatican media.

Vatican in May issued another law explicitly saying victims cannot be
silenced and have a right to learn the outcome of canonical trials. The
new document repeats that, and expands the point by saying not only the
victim, but any witnesses or the person who lodged the accusation cannot
be compelled to silence.

“Excellent news,” tweeted prominent
Irish survivor Marie Collins, a founding member of Francis’ sex abuse
advisory commission who noted that the reform was one of the first
proposals of the commission. “At last a real and positive change,” she

Individual abuse scandals, national inquiries, grand jury
investigations, U.N. denunciations and increasingly costly civil
litigation have devastated the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility across
the globe, and Francis’ own failures and missteps in dealing with
particular cases 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.

The move is significant and an indication that Francis has learned a lesson after one of his Argentine proteges, Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, was accused of inappropriate conduct with seminarians after gay porn — said to involve youngsters but not boys — was found on his cellphone.

The Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli,
said the new law is a “historical” follow-up to the February summit and a
sign of openness and transparency.

“The breadth of Pope Francis’
decision is evident: the well-being of children and young people must
always come before any protection of a secret, even the ‘’pontifical
secret,’” he said in a statement.

Also Tuesday, Francis accepted
the resignation of the Vatican’s ambassador to France, Archbishop Luigi
Ventura, who is accused of making unwanted sexual advances to young men.

Ventura turned 75 last week, the mandatory retirement age for
bishops, but the fact that his resignation was announced on the same day
as Francis’ abuse reforms didn’t seem to be a coincidence.