Pope Francis has lifted the secrecy rules for Catholic Church documents related to priests’ sexual abuse of minors, granting a longstanding demand from activists who say it will help civil authorities gather evidence against abusers in the church.
In a decree published by the Vatican Tuesday, the pope ruled that the “pontifical secret” binding church officials to confidentiality doesn’t apply to evidence and legal proceedings regarding clerical sex abuse or its coverup.
“Office confidentiality shall not prevent the fulfillment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws, including any reporting obligations, and the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities,” said the decree, which Pope Francis approved earlier this month.
In an explanatory note, the president of the Vatican City State court, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, said that the lifting of the secrecy requirement applied both to the Vatican itself and to local church authorities handling abuse cases around the world.
Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, of the Vatican’s office for church legislation, stressed in another note that the change didn’t apply to the seal of the confessional, which forbids priests from revealing any information transmitted in a sacramental confession, even if it pertains to sex abuse.
The lifting of the secrecy requirement has been long sought by campaigners against sex abuse in the clergy to help bring offenders to justice.
At an international summit of bishops on sex abuse held in February at the Vatican, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx called for revising the secrecy rules to preserve the church’s credibility on abuse. “It is not transparency which damages the church, but rather the acts of abuse committed, the lack of transparency or the ensuing coverup,” Cardinal Marx said at the time.
“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed or not even created,” Cardinal Marx said. “The rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot and left to the whims of the individual.”
Earlier in the pontificate, the pope’s advisory panel on child protection, led by Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, had proposed lifting the pontifical secret on Vatican files related to abuse, but the idea was dropped until this year.
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest measure to ensue from February’s summit, which Pope Francis called in response to a string of recent abuse scandals that had beset the church in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Australia.
In May, the pope responded to pressure to make church leaders more accountable by enacting new rules for investigating bishops over sexual abuse or its coverup, facilitating allegations by the public and requiring local dioceses to report allegations to the Vatican without delay.
Also on Tuesday, the Vatican announced that the pope had redefined child pornography under church law to apply to images of minors up to the age of 18, up from 14 under previous legislation.
The Vatican also said on Tuesday that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the papal envoy to France, who has been under investigation by Paris prosecutors for allegedly sexually assaulting a local Paris official earlier this year. The Vatican’s mission to France declined to comment. Archbishop Ventura turned 75, the age at which bishops are required to submit their resignation to the pope, earlier this month.