Pope Francis is giving legal authorities access to documents and testimony about sexual abuse cases that were previously kept under the Catholic Church's highest level of confidentiality. By abolishing the concept known as the "pontifical secret" when it comes to clergy misconduct, Francis will also let victims see more information about their cases — and speak out about their experience.
"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 regard to matters involving the case," according to the new policy, which was instituted Tuesday in the form of a rescript — a church decree approved by Francis and signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin.
The changes apply to cases of clergy committing violence or sexual assaults against anyone under their authority, as well as minors. The new policy also extends to related cases about a lack of reporting abuse and attempts to cover up accusations.
"The well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the 'pontifical' secret," says Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Vatican's Dicastery for Communications.
"As sex abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church over the last few decades, there's been mounting criticism that pontifical secrecy was used to protect pedophiles, silence victims and prevent law enforcement from investigations," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
"The pontifical secret was essentially the 'Top Secret' for the Vatican," says the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, Joshua McElwee. "It was imposed officially in 1974 as a way of trying to protect the name of both the accuser and the accused until the point at which there had been a firm judgment."
But in more recent years, McElwee adds in an interview on Morning Edition, abuse survivors have said the church's veil of secrecy had become a tool for protecting abusers, "limiting the ability of local authorities kind of to take whatever measures they needed to take to keep communities safe."
The changes to the "pontifical secret" rule mark a sharp departure from the previous policy. While the Vatican's new decree includes guidance about maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of church proceedings, it promises to quash what has been a common refrain from church authorities involved in abuse cases — that they were not authorized to share information with statutory authorities or victims.
Francis also changed the Catholic Church's policies about clerics and child pornography, in a second rescript that bans the possession or distribution of "pornographic images of minors under the age of eighteen, for purposes of sexual gratification." That raises the minimum age for the subjects of such images from 14.
Boston, Mass., attorney Mitchell Garabedian — who has represented hundreds of abuse survivors — called the shift "a small step" toward transparency that could help victims as they try to heal. But he added that many law enforcement agencies likely already had the power to use subpoenas to obtain the same result. And Garabedian urged the pope to take a bigger step.
"It is also now time for Pope Francis to mandate that crimes be reported to the police by bishops, religious superiors and others," he said, "and to make documents and testimony public with the appropriate redactions of victims' names."
The Vatican says the historical pivot was a top priority at a summit of bishops who met in February to discuss how to protect minors.
"Transparency is now being implemented at the highest level," Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Archbishop of Malta and Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, tells the official Vatican News agency.