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Pope Ends Secrecy Rule For Catholic Sexual Abuse Cases

The Conversation


Pope Francis recently removed one of the barriers facing sex abuse victims looking for justice - the “Rule of Pontifical Secrecy.” 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. 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.


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. For those who came 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.


However, Catholic sexual abuse victims face other barriers to seeking justice. Victims often seek information regarding what church officials knew about particular instances of abuse, including whether other victims made similar accusations against a particular cleric or details of any internal church investigation. Lifting the rule of pontifical secrecy does not clarify church official’s obligations to comply with such requests.


The pontifical secret is only one avenue for shielding information about wrongdoing in the church. The seal of confession prevents priests from sharing information received during confession at risk of excommunication. This has included information that victims of abuse have sought to build their cases.


Additionally, every state in the US recognizes clergy privilege – a legal rule that shields clergy from forced disclosure of confidential spiritual communication. This protection applies to confessions and to conversations in which clergy provide solace, comfort or aid. In practice, clergy privilege means priests can refuse to testify, at any stage of litigation, regarding protected conversations.


Despite the pope’s efforts, the transparency the Catholic Church seeks will take far more chipping away at the remaining obstacles to justice.