In an 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 the possession of child pornography. The decrees were issued on his birthday.
The two documents issued by the pope back practices that have been in place in some countries, particularly the US, such as reporting suspicion of sexual abuse to civil authorities where required by law.
The documents, which put the practices into universal church law, also forbid imposing an obligation of silence on those who report sexual abuse or allege they have been a victim.
“This is an epochal decision,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s most experienced sexual abuse investigator, told Vatican Radio.
The lifting of pontifical secrecy in sexual abuse investigations was a key demand by church leaders, including Scicluna and the German cardinal Reinhard Marx, at a summit on sexual abuse held at the Vatican in February.
They argued that secrecy in cases of child sexual abuse was outdated and that some church officials were hiding behind it instead of cooperating with authorities.
Scicluna said the new provisions opened up ways to communicate with victims and cooperate with the state.
“Certain jurisdictions would have easily quoted the pontifical secret … to say that they could not, and that they were not, authorised to share information with either state authorities or the victims,” Scicluna said.
“Now that impediment, we might call it that way, has been lifted, and the pontifical secret is no more an excuse,” he said.
One of the documents also raises the age under which pictures of individuals can be considered child sexual abuse images “for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology” from 14 to 18 years old.
Last year, a Vatican court sentenced a Catholic priest to five years in jail for possessing child sexual abuse images while he was based in the US as a diplomat.
On Tuesday, the pope accepted the resignation of Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the Holy See’s ambassador to France, who has been accused of sexual molestation.
The Catholic church has faced repeated scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by priests around the world in the past 20 years. Francis has vowed zero tolerance for offenders but victims of abuse want him to do more and make bishops who allegedly cover up abuse accountable.
Both documents issued on Tuesday are known as rescriptums, in which the pope uses his authority to rewrite specific articles of canon law or parts of previous papal documents. (Source: The Guardian)