For years priests used the religious rule of “pontifical secrecy” as an excuse not to report cases of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Now, that has come to an end.
On December 17, Pope Francis announced the rule of pontifical secrecy no longer applies to cases of sexual abuse. The Vatican-based leader indicated this decision would promote Church transparency and ability for local authorities to acquire information from the Catholic Church to help in sexual abuse cases.
The Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, called the reformation an “epochal decision that removes obstacles and impediments.” Scicluna, an experienced sexual abuse investigator for the Vatican, indicated that the lifting of pontifical secrecy from sexual abuse reports will better help the Church cooperate with law enforcement and ease communication with abuse survivors.
BBC News reports that pontifical secrecy, or the Catholic rule of confidentiality, was applied to sexual abuse cases in the Church to respect the privacy of victims and preserve the reputations of the accused. However, clergy members would often abuse this law to cover the tracks of sexual predators and protect the face of the Church, not victims.
Commentators on the Pope’s announcement remark the ruling will not only help in addressing the crime of clerical sexual abuse, but the cover-up of the crime, as well.
“For most American Catholics, the unfinished business of the abuse scandals isn’t cooperation with civil authorities,” reported John L. Allen Jr., Editor of the Catholic news site CRUX. “It’s accountability for the cover-up as well as the crime, meaning sanctions for officials who were in a position to prevent abuse, or to punish abusers, and who failed to act.”
In his Tuesday announcement, the Pope maintained that information in Church sexual abuse cases still needs to be handled with “security, integrity, and confidentiality.” But, the removal of sexual abuse cases from Church law of pontifical secrecy will allow for more accountability from clerical leaders.
Over the last few decades, increasing numbers of abuse reports have come out against priests in the Catholic Church worldwide, including renowned leaders in the Vatican. As claims of clerical abuse continued to stretch across the globe, the Vatican faced enormous public pressure to address how to stop the perpetuation of priests abusing children.
Currently the Catholic Church faces hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits in the United States, many of them alleging that leaders in the Catholic Church silenced their abuse or went out of their way to hide abuse reports. In an effort to help both clerical and other sexual abuse victims seek justice and recovery for their abuse, several states have amended their civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse, extending time limits to pursue abusers in civil court.
So far, New York, New Jersey, and California have all opened look back windows that completely remove the statute of limitations for a specific period of time, and other states are anticipated to follow suit in the near future.