Archbishop Charles Scicluna hails abolition of pontifical secret in clerical sex crimes

Malta’s archbishop Charles Scicluna has hailed the abolition of the pontifical secret in cases of sexual violence and clerical abuse of minors, as an important step in working for justice for victims

Pope Francis appointed Charles Scicluna the Holy See’s prosecutor on clerical sex abuse cases
Pope Francis appointed Charles Scicluna the Holy See’s prosecutor on clerical sex abuse cases

Malta’s archbishop Charles Scicluna has hailed the abolition of the pontifical secret in cases of sexual violence and clerical abuse of minors, as an important step in working for justice for victims.

Scicluna, whom Pope Francis appointed as the Holy See’s prosecutor on clerical sex abuse cases, said the abolition will mean certain jurisdictions cannot be excused from not collaborating with authorities on such cases.

The abolition of the pontifical secret applies on the reporting, trials and decisions on cases of violence and sexual acts committed under threat or abuse of authority, sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons, cases of child pornography, as well as the lack of reporting and the cover-up of the abusers on the part of bishops and superiors general of religious institutes.

“Certain jurisdiction would have easily quoted the pontifical secret because that was the state of the law, in order to say that they could not, and that they were not, authorised to share information with either state authorities or the victim,” Scicluna told Vatican News.

“Now that impediment, we might call it that way, has been lifted, and the pontifical secret is no more an excuse.

“However, the law goes further… information is of the essence if we really want to work for justice. And so, the freedom of information to statutory authorities and to victims is something that is being facilitated by this new 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. In 2001, St John Paul II ordered that clerical abuse cases be placed under pontifical secrecy in a bid to protect the privacy of those involved.

Francis’s decision reversed that move in a bid to help assure transparency in the process and utmost cooperation with civil authorities.

The new instruction specifies that such information be “treated in such a way as to ensure its security, integrity and confidentiality” established by the Code of Canon Law to protect the “good name, image and privacy” of those involved.

But this confidentiality does “not prevent the fulfilment of the obligations laid down in all places by civil laws” including the possible obligation to report, and “the execution of enforceable requests of civil judicial authorities”.

In addition, those reporting the crime, the victims and witnesses “shall not be bound by any obligation of silence” regarding the facts.

While the documents in a church penal trial are not public domain, they are available for authorities, or people who are interested parties, and authorities who have a statutory jurisdiction over the matter, Scicluna said.

“So I think that when it comes, for example, to information that the Holy See has asked to share, one has to follow the international rules: that is, that there has to be a specific request, and that all the formalities of international law are to be followed. But otherwise, on the local level, although they are not public domain, communication with statutory authorities sharing of information and documentation is facilitated.”

Pope Francis has also amended the 31-article document Normae de Gravioribus Delictis (“On more serious crimes”), raising from 14 to 18 the cut-off age below which the Vatican considers pornographic images to be child pornography.

Tackling omertà in the Church

Pope Francis’s decision to abolish the pontifical secret, which went into effect immediately, came in a brief instruction titled Sulla riservatezza delle cause (“On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings”).

The instruction specifies that while abuse cases will be handled with a lower level of confidentiality going forward, anyone who files a report, alleges abuse, or comes forward as a witness to abuse “shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case.”

Apart from abuse cases, which as of Jan. 1, 2020 are no longer under pontifical secrecy, the secret still applies to papal conclaves; the appointment of bishops and cardinals and consultation on these appointments; drafts of treaties to be made with states; drafts of laws being written; financial details of the Holy See, or even modern accusations of heresy. Breaking of these serious matters can trigger severe penalties, such as excommunication.

Scicluna took a leading role earlier this year during the Catholic Church’s summit on the protection of minors, where apart from listening to abuse victims, the organising committee – which includes Scicluna – met on a decisive strategy on how to tackle clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

The problem of sex abuse inside the Catholic Church has troubled Pope Francis, with 2018’s investigation by Scicluna in Chile having led to the resignation en masse of the entire bishops’ conference in the Latin American country.

Certain critics have accused the Catholic Church of having allowed a culture of permissiveness that allowed sex abuse crimes to take place – others blame an institutional omertà that has seen different dioceses cover up sex abuse scandals.

In the past Scicluna has told MaltaToday that changing attitudes takes time. “We have to work on cultures, we have to work on the empowerment of our people and we need to do all we can to ensure that the Church is what it should be, a safe place for young people.”

He said priests who are of risk to minors should not be in ministry, and indeed they should be defrocked, if found guilty of abuse. But he said there are other individual cases in which priests who have reached a certain old age might not necessarily be defrocked but simply removed from ministry. “The punishment needs to take care of the common good… you have to take it on a case-by-case basis.”

Scicluna had also warned that Catholic communities and orders had to get their houses in order, or risk a continuous haemorrhage, not only of people from the Church, but also of financial assets due to compensations being paid in settlements and damages. “The less victims we have, the more energy we have for schooling, for charities,” he said.