Pope Francis abolishes secrecy policy in sexual abuse cases

click to enlarge Pope Francis abolishes secrecy policy in sexual abuse cases
Vincenzo Pinto/Pool via The New York Times
Pope Francis arrives to the opening of a historic summit devoted to the issue of clerical child sexual abuse, at the Vatican on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.
By Elisabetta Povoledo
The New York Times Company

ROME — The Vatican on Tuesday said it would abolish the high level of secrecy it has applied to sexual-abuse accusations against clerics, ending a policy critics said had often shielded priests from criminal punishment by the secular authorities.

Removing that cloak of confidentiality, the Roman Catholic Church is changing its stance to make it acceptable — but not required — to turn information about abuse claims over to the police, prosecutors and judges.

In recent years, church officials in the United States and some other countries have shared with civil authorities information about some sexual abuse allegations. But that cooperation, in theory, defied a decree adopted in 2001 that made the information a “pontifical secret” — the church’s most classified knowledge.

Victims and their advocates said the restrictions hampered civil authorities and helped conceal crimes, and they greeted Francis’ new instructions as a step forward.

“Things are decidedly changing,” said Francesco Zanardi, an Italian survivor of clerical abuse and president of Rete l’Abuso, an Italian anti-abuse group.

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a group that tracks abuse in the church, said the pope had taken “an overdue and desperately needed step.”

She called changing the policy “a first step toward decreasing the anti-victim bias of canon law.”

On Tuesday, the pope also made the canon law against child pornography more stringent, a change that victims’ groups had pushed for. Previously, possession or dissemination of pornographic images of children under 14 was considered a “most grave crime.” That category will now apply to images of children under 18.

The secrecy change is the latest step in the church’s attempts to tackle the sexual abuse crisis that has dogged it for decades. Growing global pressure for greater accountability forced the issue to the front of Pope Francis’ agenda.

Barrett Doyle and other victim advocates, while praising the change, said it did not address many of the other issues they have raised, like the fact that the church has not adopted a policy of defrocking any priest who has abused a child.

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