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Penny Savidis

Published: 08 January 2020
Author: Penny Savidis and Adele White

Pope abolishes 'Pontifical Secrecy' rule in child sex abuse

Pope Francis recently declared via Rescript that the rule of “pontifical secrecy” will no longer apply to cases that involve sexual abuse of minors, sexual violence and child pornography.

Pontifical secrecy is prescribed by the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church and is essentially a code of confidentiality. Historically, that code has been used by the Church as a way of maintaining a level of secrecy when it came to cases of child sexual abuse, even being employed to reject survivor and police requests for information. The Church had previously claimed that the rule was aimed at protecting the privacy of the victims who came forward.

In a statement released by the Editorial Director of the Vatican’s Communications, Andrea Tornielli, she commented: “The Pope, in fact, via a Rescript has decided to abolish [pontifical secrecy] in cases of the sexual abuse of minors, of sexual violence and child pornography. This means that any reporting, testimony and documents produced in canonical trials related to such cases of sexual abuse – those kept in Vatican Dicastery archives as well as those found in diocesan archives – which until now were subject to the pontifical secret, can now be handed over when requested to lawful authorities in their respective countries. This is a sign of openness, transparency, and the willingness to collaborate with the civil authorities.”

The Church’s motivation was noted as being that "the well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the "pontifical" secret".

Secrecy of confession not affected

Disappointingly for survivors, the statement goes on to comment that the declaration “obviously does not affect the sacramental seal”, otherwise known as the seal of confession. Even after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down their final report and recommendations in 2015, the Catholic Church has doggedly maintained its position that it would argue against any legislation compelling the mandatory reporting of disclosures of child abuse made during confession.

On 10 September 2019, the Victorian Parliament passed legislation including people in religious ministry as mandatory reporters, meaning that they are now required by law to report to authorities if they develop a belief throughout the course of their work that a child has been abused. There is no exemption made for religious confessions.

At the time the laws were introduced, Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, made the insensitive comment that he would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession.

Despite the Pope’s recent Rescript clearing the way for some documents relating to child sexual abuse to potentially reach the appropriate authorities, the qualified nature of the statement in relation to the confession serves as yet another reminder to survivors of childhood abuse that the Church still operates in a way which shows a lack of respect for the law and the people they are designed to protect. The Church still turns a blind eye towards the behavior of those who disrespect those laws where such abuse is disclosed in the confessional.

If you or anyone you know has suffered abuse as a child, we encourage you to contact our Abuse Law Team on 03 9238 7878 or at enquiries@rctlaw.com.au for a free initial consultation.

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