WelCom February 2020
Pope Francis issued on 17 December 2019 a declaration that the Catholic Church rule of ‘Pontifical Secrecy’ no longer applies in cases of the sexual abuse of minors and matters of child pornography.
In a new ‘Instruction On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings’, the Pope ordered that ‘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.’
Pope Francis made the change to show the Church’s ‘openness, transparency, and the willingness to collaborate with the civil authorities’.
The Pope also made the canon law against child pornography more stringent. Previously, possession or dissemination of pornographic images of children under 14 was considered a ‘most grave crime’. That category that will now apply to images of children under 18.
In the past, the Church has been accused of using secrecy laws as a justification for not reporting cases of abuse. Critics have said pontifical secrecy had been abused by some Church officials to avoid co-operation with the police in abuse cases.
Pontifical secrecy was designed to protect sensitive information such as communications between the Vatican and papal embassies. But it was also applied over the years to judicial cases, to protect the privacy of victims and the identities of those accused.
Welcoming the Pope Francis’ declaration Cardinal John Dew, Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop of New Zealand, issued the following statement on 18 December.
‘We welcome this declaration by Pope Francis. The issue of ‘Pontifical Secrecy’ regarding sexual abuse has not been an issue in New Zealand because the Church here is strongly committed to co-operating with the police and judicial authorities in such matters.
‘The fact there have been criminal convictions for clerical abuse in New Zealand dating back to at least the 1990s demonstrates the willingness of the Church to share information with the relevant authorities.
‘But the Pope’s new instruction sends a clear message around the world that the Church is committed to openness and transparency in matters of abuse.
‘The New Zealand Church’s complaints process provides that we will encourage and support complainants in sexual abuse cases to go to the police.
‘Well before this new instruction from Pope Francis, the Church in New Zealand had already sought and got Church organisations to agree to waivers of any confidentiality clauses signed in the past with abuse victims. This was so we can co-operate fully with the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care.
‘The Church is committed to a safe environment for everyone in the community. Any form of abuse, misconduct or inappropriate behaviour in the Church community is not acceptable.’