CPSL welcomes the news from the Vatican that Pope Francis has abolished the pontifical secret in the case of sexual violence and the abuse of minors or vulnerable persons committed by members of the clergy.

The instruction, ‘On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings’, issued by Pope Francis on December 17, means that in cases where sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons has been reported “neither the person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regards to matters”. In abolishing the obligation of secrecy for those who have reported sexual abuse, Vatican information and documents from abuse investigations and trials will now be made available for civil authorities who have a statutory jurisdiction over the matter.

For years survivors and advocates have been calling for the pontifical secret over clerical sexual abuse to be abolished, to aid in the reporting and investigation of clergy sexual abuse. The push to abolish the pontifical secret was also heard when leaders of bishops’ conferences from around the world convened for a meeting on the protection of minors in the Church in February this year.

The Pope’s new instruction is a much needed step in the right direction in transforming the culture of the Vatican into one that values transparency and prioritises cooperation with civil authorities in investigating allegations of sexual abuse.

Under the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards, adopted by both the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia in May 2019, Criterion 6.4 requires Catholic entities to have policies and procedures in place that address reporting of concerns and complaints to relevant authorities, whether or not the law requires reporting, and to cooperate with law enforcement.

The instruction regarding the abolishment of the pontifical secret was one of two issued by Pope Francis on December 17.  The second instruction relates to the re-definition of ‘minors’ in child pornography. ‘Minors’ are now classified as children aged under the age of 18, an increase from the previous specified age of 14 and under. The crime is now described as: “The acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of 18, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.”

CPSL affirms the decision to re-classify the definition of ‘minors’ from 14 up to 18 in the case of child pornography.  This change reflects an appreciation of the seriousness of crimes committed against children under 18 who are victims of child pornography.  This change by the Pope brings the Vatican in line with the National Catholic Safeguarding Standards which defines children as individuals under the age of 18.