Author: Christine P. Bartholomew
Publication: The Conversation
Pope Francis recently removed one of the barriers facing sex abuse victims looking for justice – the “Rule of Pontifical Secrecy.”
The rule is an obligation under the church’s laws to keep sensitive information regarding the Catholic Church’s governance strictly confidential. This rule allowed church officials to withhold information in sexual abuse cases, even where there was an alleged cover-up or a failure to report allegations. The clergy could claim secrecy even from victims or legal authorities.
Pope Francis stated on Dec. 17, 2019, in a press release “On the Topic of Confidentiality in Legal Proceedings,” that his intention in ending papal secrecy was to increase transparency in child abuse cases.
As a legal scholar, I have extensively analyzed the use of evidence rules that shield confidential communications with clergy. I argue that even with the removal of the papal secrecy rule, transparency might remain illusive for abuse victims.
The Catholic Church has other practices it can rely on to conceal information.
Papal secrecy rule
The Rule of Pontifical Secrecy is part of the church’s canon laws – ordinances that regulate the church and its members. It traces its roots to the twelfth century, when the church set up the institution of Inquisition for punishing heresy. This quest was rooted in secrecy and led to the torture and execution of thousands of people throughout Europe and the Americas.
The rule is the church’s highest level of secrecy. Historically, it applied primarily to issues of church governance. This includes drafts of canon law, papal conclaves and also internal church investigations of misconduct by clergy.
The rule is intended, in part, to protect the names of accusers and the accused in church-related disputes until there had been some clear finding of wrongdoing. The penalty for disclosing information can include excommunication.
Rule hindered justice
In application, though, the rule of secrecy has hindered efforts by child abuse victims to seek justice against the church.
It became a way for church officials to avoid reporting allegations of abuse to law officials. Officials also relied on the rule to refuse to cooperate with legal authorities investigating allegations of wrongdoing.
Critics also feared the rule hindered victims from coming forward. For those who did come forward, the rule made it more difficult to obtain information pertinent to any subsequent litigation.
When the pope issued the instruction to remove the rule from the canon law in December, his decision lifted only the veil of pontifical secrecy from three categories of cases: sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons; failure to report or efforts to cover up such abuse; and possession of pornography by a cleric.
All other matters previously covered by this rule, such as diplomatic correspondences and personal issues, remain subject to papal secrecy.