Catholic priests thinking about keeping quiet on suspected sexual abuse will no longer be able to hide behind the Vatican’s secrecy rules.
Rather, they will have no little choice but to surrender to authorities after Pope Francis on Wednesday morning (Australia time), abolished the use of “political secrecy” to stop shielding alleged abusers.
In short, the previous rule meant priests who abide by the Roman Catholic Church’s canon law could not share information with either state authorities or the victims about abuse-related accusations, trials and decisions.
Cases of sexual abuse of minors were covered by the highest level of confidentiality, under the guise of protecting the privacy of victims – but also the reputations of the accused.
Priests were fearful that if they violated the political secrecy rule – formally referred to as the right to “pontifical secrecy” – that would result in their ex-communication from the church.
Now, under the changes, priests would have no excuse for not keeping authorities in the loop about beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of sexual abuse. They would no longer be considered to be breaking the seal of confession.
And it means the church can not silence victims either.
In Australia, as in other countries, the Catholic Church has been accused of protecting pedophile priests and covering up the sexual abuse of children.
Last month, attorneys-general agreed to standardise laws making it mandatory for priests to report child abuse revealed to them during confession.
But that didn’t ensure church figures were not going to use a “confessional privilege” defence – until now.
Priests have been given the green light to share documents and information against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings, as well as update victims on their cases.
The Pope has issued two new documents stipulating the tightened rules which tell of how priests should go about reporting confessed sex abuse.
They forbid imposing an obligation of silence on those who report sex abuse or allege they have been a victim.
One of the documents also raises to 18 or under the age that pictures of individuals can be considered child pornography “for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology”. The Church had previously listed the age as 14 or under.
These measures have been employed in several countries including the US, where reporting suspicion of sex abuse to civil authorities is already required by law.
“This is an epochal decision,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and the Vatican’s most experienced sex abuse investigator, told Vatican Radio.
Archbishop Scicluna said the new provisions open up ways to communicate with victims and co-operate with the state.
“Certain jurisdictions would have easily quoted the pontifical secret … to say that they could not, and that they were not, authorised to share information with either state authorities or the victims,” he said.
“Now that impediment, we might call it that way, has been lifted, and the pontifical secret is no more an excuse.”
Pope Francis has vowed zero tolerance for offenders, but victims of abuse want him to do more and make bishops who allegedly covered up the abuse accountable.
Both documents issued on Wednesday morning (Australia time) are known as rescriptums, where the Pope uses his authority to rewrite specific articles of canon law or parts of previous papal documents.