ROME – When Pope Francis in a landmark move eliminated the so-called “pontifical secret” in clerical abuse cases on Tuesday, the decision was immediately hailed by Vatican officials as a sign of “transparency and cooperation with civil authorities.”
As it turns out, this is at least one instance when the Vatican, clerical abuse survivors and experts in child protection all agree.
In comments to Crux, Chilean clerical abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz praised the decision as “courageous,” saying it is key to helping civil authorities obtain the documents necessary to properly investigate accusations.
Likewise, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, head of the Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said the move is a “real and concrete” step in the right direction, which will allow Church officials “to really take one’s own responsibility in helping to find out what has happened in cases of abuse and to promote justice.”
“You can find out better what has happened and what has been known in regards to persons who have been abused and clerics who have been accused of sexual abuse,” he told Crux, calling it “a highly symbolic significance in terms of the Church taking a further step in the direction of transparency and in cooperation with state authorities.”
On Tuesday, Francis issued two rescripts practically eliminating the so-called “pontifical secret” in cases of clerical sexual abuse and raising the age for what constitutes the crime of possession of child pornography under church law to images of anyone under 18.
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.
In 2001, St. John Paul II placed abuse cases under the pontifical secret in a bid to protect the privacy of those involved, however, Francis’s move reverses that decision, which both experts and Vatican officials have said allows for more easy cooperation with civil authorities.
In separate tweets sent out after the news broke, Irish clerical abuse survivor Marie Collins hailed the decision as “excellent news,” saying “At last a real and positive change.”
“Most important aspect of this change, removal of Pontifical Secret, means documents from canon law abuse trials will be available to civil authorities,” she said in the tweet, adding that “This is the theory lets hope it happens in practice.”
In comments to the press Thursday, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary for the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the decision to remove abuse cases from the binds of the pontifical secret was made as “a question of coherency” with previous revisions made to the Church’s penal law, as well as “experience.”
“The law was modified keeping in mind juridical praxis and the experience of the application of the law,” Arrieta said. “It’s not that people were allowed to talk behind the back about these things, but the secret had to be maintained,” he said, explaining that the Church’s lawmakers eventually got to a point where experience showed that “perhaps it would be better in these cases if the pontifical secret is taken away.”
He said the changes are part of a broader revision of Book Six of the Code of Canon Law, which deals with penal law and has been ongoing for the past decade.
Voicing hope that the new version of the book would be ready for publishing within the next six months, Arrieta said Tuesday’s changes, which he called “epochal” in terms of procedure, would be included in the new version.
Speaking to Crux, Zollner said the abolition of the pontifical secret in abuse cases is something experts have been pushing for years, and was a specific recommendation made by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in its first mandate.
This topic, he noted, was also brought up by several prelates during a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on child protection, with most comments from key figures coming out as critical of it.
“It has taken a long time, way too long a time, in the eyes of many and certainly of victims,” to get to this point, he said, but stressed that the Holy See and many bishops’ conferences for years have cooperated with states and governments who have requested documentation from their archives.
“Now this is a general rule and is also applicable to any diocesan archives or archives of religious congregations and orders,” he said, adding that in the 10 months since the February summit, he has seen a change in perception among bishops about the severity of the issue.
When he first read the news, Cruz said his immediate reaction was “thank you,” because “this is something that the survivor community has been asking for such a long time, and it helps so many.”
“From a survivor’s standpoint, there is still a lot to do in terms of abuse and getting rid of (clerical abuse), but courageous actions and something big like this, is a big step forward to continue moving toward cleaning up this big mess,” he said.
“This allows for transparency, and it allows for (bishops) not to hide themselves behind the wall of papal secrecy. Things that perhaps we could not get before or that the local prosecutors wouldn’t have been able to get before, they will be able to get them now,” Cruz said, explaining that he will soon be returning to Chile for the holidays, and while there, he is set to meet with the prosecutor tasked with handling the massive influx of clerical abuse cases over the past two years.
Some bishops, he said, are using victims to push an “ultra-conservative” agenda only to “drop victims like hot potatoes” later. Cruz said he believes Francis is someone who “gets it” on the abuse issue.
“I’ve been lucky to spend time with him, and I’ve seen in his face, in his words, in his demeanor, how he suffers with this horror of abuse and what it does to people,” he said, noting that while many people, and especially victims, want things to move faster, “it’s an uphill battle…it’s not like the pope can sign a decree and things will end.”
Praising several prelates who he believes have done an exceptional job handling abuse cases and relating with victims, Cruz said he wants to see greater accountability for bishops who mishandle cases.
Many bishops will come to meetings, such as the February summit, and voice outrage, pledging to do more, “and then you see them go back to their dioceses and keep doing the same horrors,” Cruz said. “So that hypocrisy, I feel that there needs to be severe accountability for bishops around the world.”
Zollner praised what he said is concrete follow-up to the summit from the Vatican to the February summit, first with a set of new procedural norms on child sexual abuse for Vatican City State published in March, then the publication in May of Vos Estis Lux Mundi, a new Church law making it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, even when the accused are bishops or cardinals, and now with the abolition of the pontifical secret in regards to abuse.
Calling these measures “a major step with regard to transparency and consistency in the approach,” Zollner said he believes the next step on the abuse front is the publication of the vademecum that was spoken about in February, and which is essentially a guideline for bishops, religious provincials, judges and Church authorities on how to deal with allegations and apply norms.
“This is something that has already been announced, it’s in the making, as well as the revision of book six of the Code of Canon law,” he said, saying these are the immediate next steps he hopes to see in the near future.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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