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Pope lifts Church’s Secrecy over Sex Abuse Victims

(Dec. 18, 2019) Pope Francis announced yesterday that he will abolish the obligation of secrecy surrounding abuse victims during Vatican trials and processes. The Catholic News Service just announced the new plan, which appears to be aimed at helping those who report having been sexually abused by a priest, as well as those who testify in a church trial or process concerning a clergy sex abuse lawsuit.

The pope ordered in a new “Instruction  On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings” that, “The person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case.”

Previous church canon law failed to provide such transparency. Instead, it protected alleged predatory priests rather than their victims. The church previously even called its own abuse files “secret archives,” and claimed the Catholic church had special rights not afforded other, more secular institutions.

All that secret history came under heavy attack across the country and around the world after a Pennsylvania grand jury report, in August 2018, released the results of a two-year investigation that found 300 Penn. priests had abused more than 1,000 children in the last six or seven decades.

Confession Seal Remains

The confession seal for penitents, however, remains in place. Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said in an accompanying note that the change regarding the “pontifical secret” has nothing to do with the seal of the sacrament of confession.

“The absolute obligation to observe the sacramental seal,” said the bishop, “is an obligation imposed on the priest by reason of the position he holds in administering the sacrament of confession and not even the penitent can free him of it.”

The new instruction was published by the Vatican along with changes to the already-updated “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” (“Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments”). That 2001 document issued by St. John Paul II outlined procedures for the investigation and trial of any member of the clergy accused of sexually abusing a child or vulnerable adult, or one accused of acquiring, possessing, or distributing child pornography.

Child Pornography Definition Change

Pope Francis also changed the Catholic definition of child pornography in the amendments. A subject less than 14 years old was the previous cut-off date for clerical pedophile perversions. The new description of the crime reads, “The acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of 18, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.”

Defense Representation change for Accused Priests

In describing the procedural norms for how the tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to be composed and conducted, Pope Francis has also removed the requirement that the legal representative of the accused be a priest. The law now reads: “The role of advocate or procurator is carried out by a member of the faithful possessing a doctorate in canon law, who is approved by the presiding judge of the college.”

Most importantly, the new law decrees that not only are victims and witnesses free to discuss the case, the amended law specifies that the still-in-effect obligation of Vatican officials to maintain confidentiality “shall not prevent the fulfillment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws. (That includes) any reporting obligations, and the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities.”

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Vatican’s chief abuse investigator, told America Magazine that the new law explicitly states people’s “moral duty” to cooperate with civil authorities in reporting and investigating the crime of abuse.  “Moreover,” he explained, there is an obligation not to bind people who disclose misconduct or crimes by any promise or vow of silence.”

The Question of Transparency

Archbishop Scicluna told Vatican News that the pope’s newest move to drop the “pontifical secret” represented an “epochal change.” He said it means “the question of transparency” is now being implemented at the highest level.”

The new rules do not mean that documents from Vatican abuse investigations and trials will be made public, he said, but “they are available for authorities, or people who are interested parties, and authorities who have a statutory jurisdiction over the matter.”

In September 2017, members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors asked Pope Francis to reconsider Vatican norms maintaining the imposition of “pontifical secret” in the church’s judicial handling of clerical sex abuse and other grave crimes.

It would appear the pope has answered that request, but in the past the pope’s actions have belied his declarations. Time will tell if the new declaration of transparency will be more of the same or something which can truly help survivors of clergy sex abuse find some measure of justice and peace for themselves.

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