Pope Francis abolishes the pontifical secret for sexual misconduct cases involving clerics

Author: Gerard O’Connell

Publication: America Magazine

Date: 17DEC2019

In a decision of enormous importance, long called for by survivors of abuse and their advocates, Pope Francis has abolished the pontifical secret for sexual misconduct cases concerning clerics.

The “pontifical secret” is not related to the seal of the confessional, which remains absolute (and inviolable) in Catholic teaching and practice. Rather, the pontifical secret refers to confidentiality in the church’s judicial handling of clerical sex abuse and other grave crimes (as well as secrecy in other areas, such as some matters concerning the appointment of cardinals and bishops). The secrecy ensures that cases are dealt with in strict confidentiality. Vatican experts have said it was designed to protect the dignity of everyone involved, including the victim, the accused, their families and their communities.

In September 2017, members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had asked Pope Francis to reconsider Vatican norms maintaining the imposition of the “pontifical secret” in the church’s judicial handling of such crimes. He has done so by promulgating a new law that Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told America represents “a momentous shift towards transparency” in the Catholic Church’s ongoing response to the abuse scandal.

This was one of two new laws published by the Vatican on Dec. 17 at the instruction of Pope Francis, who celebrates his 83rd birthday on this day. The second law updates the definition of child pornography to cover victims up to age 18.Significantly, too, it allows for qualified laypeople to represent and defend persons in church tribunals in cases of sexual misconduct without having to ask permission. Previously only clerics could do so.

The Vatican referred to the two new laws as “rescriptum ex audientia,” the technical term in Latin which, Archbishop Scicluna explained, “is a decision that the Holy Father takes in an audience with one of his main collaborators, a decision that becomes a law.”

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