On his 83rd birthday Tuesday (December 17), Pope Francis issued new laws that abolished the “pontifical secret” that has been used in cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.
His reformist action — hailed as an “epochal decision” by the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna — has come in response to increasingly loud criticism that the principle of confidentiality has been employed to protect paedophiles in the Church, silence victims, and to prevent law enforcement authorities from investigating crimes by members of clergy.
Pope Francis decreed that while the “security, integrity and confidentiality” of information in abuse cases will be protected, the “pontifical secret” will no longer apply to abuse-related accusations, trials and decisions under the Catholic Church’s canon law, media reports said.
What is the “pontifical secret”, the highest form of confidentiality in the church?
Simply put, pontifical secret, or simply “papal secrecy”, was the diktat of confidentiality that secured and kept secret all sensitive information on aspects of the governance of the Church.
It was similar to the classification as “secret”, “classified”, or “confidential” that governments or organisations the world over give to certain kinds of information.
In fact, the word ‘secret’ comes from the Latin ‘secreto’, which means ‘confidential’.
According to a September 2018 report published by the ‘Catholic News Agency’, one of the world’s premier providers of Catholic news, those bound by the pontifical secret take an oath at the beginning of their service in the Curia or the diplomatic corps, to “in no way, under any pretext, whether of greater good, or of very urgent and very grave reason,” to break the secret.
Materials covered by the pontifical secret include diplomatic communications made between the Vatican’s nunciatures around the world, but also apply to a range of other subjects, the ‘Catholic News Agency’ article said.
“These include private dossiers and recommendations on priests and bishops being considered for promotion. Controversially, the secret also covers penal processes concerning major crimes handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, including cases involving the sexual abuse of minors,” it said.
In theory — and the allegations of misuse notwithstanding — there could be multiple, legitimate reasons for the secrecy.
Communications between papal embassies and the Vatican would be classified in the same way as communications between a country’s capital and its missions overseas.
Files on high officials in the papal administration too, would be protected in the same way as files in any national government.
And in judicial cases, privacy and reputations — of both parties involved — must be protected.
“As the name ‘pontifical secret’ implies, it is only the pope — or someone empowered by him — who can dispense from it,” the ‘Catholic News Agency’ article said.
“Those hoping for curial officials to act on their own initiative, even for the supposed good of the Church, are likely to be disappointed. If they were to do so, they could find themselves subjected to disciplinary measures in the same way that any government official might if they were to release classified documents without authorization.”
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