Pope Francis has abolished Vatican secrecy rules for cases of sexual abuse, effectively allowing the Catholic church to share documents and information with civil authorities, and allow victims to be updated of the status of their cases.
The church already shares files with authorities in some countries, such as the United States, but the practice is not universal. Some Catholic churches around the world have invoked the “pontifical secret” to refuse cooperation in certain cases.
Pontifical secret is considered the highest level of confidentiality in church law which covers a number of administrative cases at the Vatican, such as nominations of cardinals, investigations by the Secretariat of State, and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The violation of pontifical secrecy can result in excommunication from the church.
“Pontifical secret is no longer an excuse,” the Vatican’s top investigator for sexual abuse, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said.
Scrapping the secrecy rule comes after several church officials criticized it during the historic Vatican summit in February, which focused on combating clergy sexual abuse.
Leaders had argued that secrecy in sexual abuse cases was outdated and that church officials were using it to hide behind instead of cooperating with civil authorities.
Scicluna said abolishing the rule “means the question of transparency is now being implemented at the highest level.”
Abolishing pontifical secrecy will also allow victims to be informed of the outcome of their cases at the Vatican.
The pope’s special declaration, called a Rescript — which takes effect immediately — does not change the privacy rules around reporting sexual abuse or Vatican trials of alleged abusers.
A leading campaigner for abuse victims told CNN that the Pope’s move to lift some of the church’s key secrecy laws is “overdue” and further moves towards transparency are required.
“For a long time, representatives of victims/survivors from all over the world have demanded that papal secrecy be lifted in cases of sexual abuse of children by priests,” Mattias Katsch said. Katsch is an abuse survivor and founder of Ending Clergy Abuse, a campaign group.
“At the end of February at the Vatican, on the fringes of the crisis summit on abuse, the international alliance of survivors and activists Ending Clergy Abuse made this demand. The decision of the Vatican is therefore an overdue step,” Katsch added.
“Now it is important that further steps are taken towards transparency — also with regard to the thousands of acts of abuse cases stored in Vatican chambers and palaces. These files must be made available for independent review and investigation,”
Also on Tuesday, Pope Francis expanded the church’s definition of child pornography, raising the age limit on who is considered a child from 14 to 18.
The laws, which will come into effect in January 2020, will mean possession of pornography of children under the 18 is a crime under Vatican laws.
By Delia Gallagher, CNN