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Pope abolishes pontifical secret for sex-abuse cases

December 17, 2019

Pope Francis has abolished the “pontifical secret” in sex-abuse cases, making it possible for Church officials to share information with secular law-enforcement officers.

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In a canonical document called a “rescript,” made public on December 17, the Pontiff said that while information about sex-abuse cases should be considered confidential, that status does “not prevent the fulfillment of the obligations laid down in all places in civil laws.” The rescript also provides that someone who makes an accusation of sexual abuse, or is a witness to abuse, is not bound by secrecy.

The change is a response to longstanding complaints that the pontifical secret—the requirement that canonical investigations be conducted in complete confidentiality—had prevented Church officials from disclosing abuse complaints, thus thwarting criminal investigations.

The rescript does not apply to information that a priest hears in a sacramental confession; the confessional seal, which forbids a priest from divulging any such information, remains intact.

In another rescript issued on the same day, the Pope altered the canonical definition of child pornography, to include images of children below the age of 18. The existing canonical legislation had only included images of children under 14.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top sex-abuse investigator, said that the elimination of the pontifical secret in sex-abuse cases was an “epochal decision” that would be a boon to civil prosecutors. “It opens up, for example, avenues of communication with victims, of collaboration with the state,” he said.

In the rescript the Pope emphasizes that investigations into abuse charges should be “treated in such a way as to ensure its security, integrity, and confidentiality,” and that the reputations of accused parties should be protected. However, he said, that concern for the defendant should not override the obligation to work with civil prosecutors.


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  • Posted by: mclom - Dec. 18, 2019 10:13 AM ET USA

    I will wait and see if the new system prevents people from attending Confession for other reasons, because they are not given clear explanations about what may or may not be told. Personally, I think there’s a good chance many people won’t confess anymore this type of behaviour that has affected them. Why would they if they worry about confidentiality? An abuser may now use more violent means to keep his victim quiet.