On 17 December, 2019, his 83rd birthday, Pope Francis announced long awaited changes to the rules governing how the Roman Catholic Church deals with cases of sexual abuse of children.
Pope Francis has abolished the rule of pontifical secrecy that previously covered these cases. Pontifical secrecy is considered the highest level of confidentiality in church law and to violate it could result in excommunication from the Church.
This rule was long considered to be out of date and was sadly used by some in the Church as a reason not to co-operate with authorities who were investigating the sexual abuse of children.
The removal of pontifical secrecy in the investigation of child sexual abuse was a key demand by many senior Church leaders at a Vatican summit on sexual abuse in February 2019.
In abolishing pontifical secrecy Pope Francis has embraced international best standards and has issued two documents which set out the practices to be followed going forward.
These two documents are known as rescriptums. In them Pope Francis uses his authority to rewrite specific articles of canon law or parts of previous papal documents. They take effect immediately.
These documents provide for the reporting of suspicions of sexual abuse to civil authorities where required by law and they forbid imposing an obligation of silence on those who report sexual abuse or allege they have been a victim.
Pope Francis also expanded the church’s definition of child pornography, raising the age limit on who is considered a child from 14 to 18. This comes into effect in January, 2020 and it means that possession of pornography of children up to the age of 18 will be a crime under Vatican laws.
Sharon Moohan, Partner, BLM