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Pope abolishes secrecy laws for clergy sex abuse cases

December 17, 2019

The "pontifical secret," the highest level of confidentiality in the Catholic Church, will no longer apply in clergy sex abuse cases. The reform removes a major hurdle that prevented police from investigating crimes.

Pope Francis
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Solaro

Pope Francis abolished Vatican secrecy laws in sexual abuse cases on Tuesday in a major overhaul of the Catholic Church's approach to clergy sex abuse.

The "pontifical secret," the highest level of confidentiality in the church, will no longer apply in connection with "accusations, trials and decision" related to certain offenses, the Vatican said in a statement.

Those offenses include sexual acts committed under threat or abuse of authority as well as the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable people and child pornography. The secrecy laws will also not apply to those who fail to report abusers or actively try to cover up cases.

Abolishing the secrecy laws now removes any excuse not to cooperate with legal requests from police, prosecutors or other authorities.

"The carnival of obscurity is over,'' said Juan Carlos Cruz, a prominent Chilean survivor of clergy abuse and victim advocate.

Easing cooperation with police

The reform was hailed as an "epochal decision" by the Vatican's leading sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna.

Interview with a sexual abuse survivor

For years, the church said the secrecy laws were necessary to protect the reputation of the accused and the privacy of the victim. The secrecy also helped keep scandals hidden from the public and prevented law enforcement from accessing documents.

Documents from the church's own legal proceedings in abuse cases will still not be made available to the public.

Clergy are also still not required by the church to report cases of abuse to police, but the new law says religious superiors are obliged to report when civil laws require it.

Tightening laws on child sex abuse

In a separate decree, Francis also tightened the church's laws concerning child pornography as part of the church's response to the spread of the abusive images online.

The cutoff age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography was raised from 14 to 18.

The Catholic Church has been under fire over widespread child sex abuse perpetuated for decades by clergy and covered up by high-ranking church members.

In February, Francis hosted a crisis summit on the issue with bishops from around the world, vowing reforms and an end to covering up crimes carried out by priests and other church officials.

rs/aw (AP, dpa)

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