Pope Francis has abolished the Catholic Church’s ‘pontifical secrecy’ in cases of clerical sexual abuse in a major reform of canon law.
The Church previously shrouded sexual abuse cases in secrecy, in what it said was an effort to protect the privacy of victims and reputations of the accused.
The pontiff issued two new papal documents Tuesday, changing how the Church handles abuse cases involving minors and vulnerable persons, lifting restrictions on those who report abuse or claim they have been victims.
Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, decreed in 2001 that information in abuse cases must be covered by ‘pontifical secrecy’ to protect the privacy of the victim and the reputation of the accused.
However, the move – the Church’s highest form of secrecy – has been heavily criticized for decades by victims for covering up abuses and preventing prosecution.
The church has been rocked in recent years by a long series of revelations and allegations about clerical sexual abuse around the world, with some complaints dating back decades.
In many cases, the priests accused were simply moved to another parish after complaints were lodged with church elders.
Earlier this year, senior Vatican official Cardinal George Pell was convicted of sexually assaulting two choirboys in Australia in the 1990s.
In November, Australia’s High Court granted him a final appeal, which is due to be heard early next year.
A breach of ‘pontifical secrecy’ was considered a grave sin, and its removal from abuse cases was a key demand from Catholic leaders at the first summit on Church sexual abuse in February.
In the new documents, the Pope decrees that while information in abuse cases must still be protected to ensure its secrecy and integrity, the ‘pontifical secret’ no longer applies to accusations of abuse or to trials of the accused.
The pontiff also raised the lower age for material “for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology” to be considered child pornography, increasing it from 14 or under to 18 or under.