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Pope Francis lifts pontifical secret from legal proceedings of abuse trials of clerics

(Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Pope Francis has declared that the pontifical secret will no longer apply in cases of accusations and trials involving abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, and in cases of possession of child pornography by clerics.

With the instruction published on December 17, “On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings,” Pope Francis intends “to cancel in these cases the subjection to what is called the ‘pontifical secret’ bringing back instead the ‘level’ of confidentiality, dutifully required to protect the good reputation of the people involved,” according to Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

The pontifical secret, also sometimes called papal secrecy, is a rule of confidentiality protecting sensitive information regarding the governance of the universal Church. It is similar to the “classified” or “confidential” status common in companies or civil governments.

In the new instruction, Pope Francis said the pontifical secret will also no longer bind those working in offices of the Roman Curia to confidentiality on other offenses if committed in conjunction with child abuse or child pornography.

Witnesses, alleged victims, and the person who files the report are also not bound to obligations of silence, the instruction states.

The norms cover “delicts against the sixth commandment” as defined in article one of Pope Francis’ May 2019 letter, Vos estis lux mundi, which is sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable person by a cleric or consecrated person.

It also regards the delict defined in article six of the Normae de gravioribus delictis, which is the possession, distribution, or acquisition of pornography by a cleric.

The instruction notes, however, that information related to cases of abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, and of child pornography, should still be treated with “security, integrity and confidentiality” in accordance with canon 471 of the Code of Canon Law, “for the sake of protecting the good name, image and privacy of all persons involved.”

Canon 471 binds those who work in curial offices to fulfill their function faithfully and to observe secrecy in accordance with church law or in the manner determined by the bishop.

The instruction goes into effect immediately.

It was published together with a rescript which modifies several articles in Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, which lays out the church’s norms on those delicts considered “more grave” and reserved to the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The rescript, which goes into effect January 1, 2020, makes three changes to Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, as amended by Pope Benedict XVI’s Rescriptum ex Audientia SS.mi in 2010.

It changes the definition of child pornography as a “more grave delict” from age 14 and under to age 18 and under.

The role of advocate or procurator, which before had to be carried out by a priest with a doctorate in canon law, may now be carried out by a lay Catholic with a doctorate in canon law.

Article 14 was amended to state that the other functions of the tribunal — judge, promoter of justice, and notary — have not changed and must be carried out by a priest.