Pope abolishes 'pontifical secret' in abuse cases, raises age for child porn

Pope abolishes ‘pontifical secret’ in abuse cases, raises age for child porn

Pope abolishes ‘pontifical secret’ in abuse cases, raises age for child porn

Pope Francis celebrates a Mass for the Philippine community of Rome, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican to Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

Pope Francis issued two legal documents Tuesday, one loosening the degree of secrecy that applies to clerical abuse cases and the other raising the age for what constitutes child pornography to 18 and permitting lay people to act as advocates in abuse cases.

ROME – Pope Francis practically eliminated the so-called “pontifical secret” in cases of clerical sexual abuse Tuesday, in what Vatican officials called a sign of “transparency and cooperation with civil authorities,” and also raised the age for what constitutes the crime of possession of child pornography under church law to images of anyone under 18.

Published Dec 17, on the pope’s 83rd birthday, the changes were made in two papal rescripts signed by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

According to Italian jurist Giuseppe Dalla Torre, ex-president of the Vatican’s tribunal, the new changes “contribute to favoring a transition in canon law from an attitude of diffidence and self-defense regarding civil law, to an attitude of trust and healthy collaboration.”

However, commentators stressed that lifting the pontifical secret does not affect the seal of the confessional, which remains intact.

Among the more notable changes Tuesday was the decision to broaden the definition of child pornography.

While the old text referred to minors as under 14 years of age, the new text raises it to 18, defining the crime of child pornography as: “The acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of eighteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.”

Francis also lifted restrictions allowing only priests to represent accused parties, opening the role of advocate to any “member of the faithful possessing a doctorate in canon law … approved by the presiding judge of the college.”

The changes are in step with previous revisions to Church law, such as a 2010 rescript from Pope Benedict XVI amending St. John Paul II’s 2001 apostolic letter, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, which dealt with the protection and safeguarding of the sacraments.

In February, Francis alluded to raising the age limit for minors, saying in his closing speech for a Feb. 21-24 summit on child protection, “We now consider that this age limit should be raised in order to expand the protection of minors and to bring out the gravity of these deeds.”

Already in July 2013, Francis promulgated a law in Vatican City on child pornography with the language, “[E]very human being below the age of eighteen years.”

During that February summit, the so-called “pontifical secret” also took a beating, with several heavyweights in the Francis papacy criticizing it, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany, a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, essentially the pope’s go-to man in the United States, as well as other prelates.

RELATED: No secret that ‘pontifical secrecy’ is taking a beating at pope’s summit

While virtually everything that happens in the Vatican is considered to some extent confidential, more serious issues have traditionally been subject to a “pontifical secret,” the violation of which can trigger severe penalties up to excommunication.

Debate about pontifical secrecy exploded in 2003, when CBS broadcast an exposé pivoting on a 1962 Vatican document called Crimen Sollicitationis, which dealt with the canonical crime of “solicitation,” meaning a priest abusing the confessional to proposition someone sexually. Among other things, it imposed secrecy on canonical investigations of these cases and other sexual misconduct by a priest.

At the time, many commentators criticized Crimen as proof that the cover-up of clerical abuse was a systematic Vatican policy.

Canon lawyers and other experts, however, have often argued that there are legitimate reasons in abuse cases to maintain a degree of “secrecy,” or confidentiality, allowing witnesses to speak freely and priests to protect their good name until guilt is proven.

However, under Francis’s new changes, dated Dec. 4, the pontifical secret has all but been eliminated in certain instances, effectively taking away an excuse not to cooperate with civil justice.

The new norms also address so-called “office secrets,” meaning ordinary confidentiality.

“Office confidentiality shall not prevent the fulfilment 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,” they say.

All parties involved, including the person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses, it adds, “shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case.”

In a statement, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, insisted that while pontifical secrecy has been loosened, confidentiality has not been thrown out the window.

“The fact that awareness of these criminal actions is no longer bound by the ‘pontifical secret’ doesn’t mean they’re cleared for publicity at will on the part of those possessing such awareness, which, in addition to being immoral, would injure the right to one’s good name,” he said, adding that those who are informed of the situation or involved in the investigation in some way “are obligated ‘to guarantee security, integrity and reserve,’ and to share information with third parties not involved in the case.”

Dalla Torre said “the reasons which in the past led to including the gravest offenses against morals … among the materials subject to the pontifical secret are giving way to goods which, today, are perceived as higher and worthy of particular care … above all, the primacy of the human person offended in his or her dignity, all the more so in cases of weakness, [young] age or a natural incapacity.”

“When civil law establishes an obligation to report on the part of someone informed about the facts,” he said, “the reduction of the pontifical secret and the detail on the limits of the ‘office secret’ permit a ready fulfillment of the requirements of the law, thereby favoring full collaboration with civil authorities and preventing illegitimate incursions of the civil authority into the canonical sphere.”

Veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s editorial director, called Tuesday’s changes “a sign of openness, availability, transparency and cooperation with civil authorities.”

Tornielli summed up the spirit of Francis’s changes this way: “The good of children and young people must always trump any consideration of secrecy, even that which is ‘pontifical.’”

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, an expert canon lawyer and Francis’s go-to figure on the abuse scandals, called Tuesday’s moves “epochal.”

“I remember that in the discussion at the summit in February, the pontifical secret was repeatedly spoken of almost as an impediment to the right information given to the victim and the communities,” Scicluna said. “In my opinion, this decision is epochal in the context of the juridical institution of the pontifical secret and it arrives at the right moment.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it


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