In a pair of unexpected decrees issued Tuesday morning, Pope Francis removed the obligation of pontifical secrecy from clerical sexual abuse cases, and strengthened the Church’s canonical prohibition against clerical possession of child pornography.
The moves are the latest in a series of efforts by the pope to reform the Church’s approach to clerical sexual abuse and coercion, and sure to be welcomed by Catholics calling for reform on the issue. The legal changes come, however, as observers watch to see how Francis will act on several high-profile abuse cases.
The pope’s decision to end the obligation of pontifical secrecy on cases of abuse, coercion, or possession of child pornography is a move that some reformers and abuse survivors have called for since the emergence of the Theodore McCarrick scandal in June 2018. In fact, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors recommended the move in 2017, before the McCarrick scandal exploded.
Formally speaking, the pontifical secret binds the secrecy of procedural and substantive acts of a canonical case concerning clerical abuse or coercion, or did, until the pope amended the Church’s law this week. This means that diocesan and Vatican officials will now be free to give summaries of how an internal canonical case was decided, or, if a case warrants it, even to release canonical trial documents themselves.
Of course, the pope’s decree insists that appropriate confidentiality be observed in canonical cases, especially to protect the good name of a person not found guilty of canonical crimes or grave moral offenses, but there seems now to be decidedly more latitude for ecclesiastical officials to make appropriate judgments about what they can reveal, and what they can not.
But there is also a kind of symbolic meaning to the pope’s decree on pontifical secrecy. The pontifical secret is often seen to be nearly as serious and sacrosanct as the confessional seal, and so its role in abuse cases has, by some estimates, become a kind of psychological deterrent, preventing those with concerns about how cases are being handled from raising a red flag, or giving the impression to victims and witnesses that they are not free to speak out about abuse or coercion, and its handling by the Church.
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