Home News The Pope abolishes the pontifical secret in cases of sexual abuse

The Pope abolishes the pontifical secret in cases of sexual abuse

by Vatican News

Pope Francis is now making testimony collected in canonical processes available to legal authorities.

Two documents are destined to make a lasting mark: Pope Francis has abolished the pontifical secret in the case of sexual violence and the abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy. He has also decided to change the norm regarding the crime of child pornography by making the possession and dissemination of pornographic images of children under the age of 18 which fall under the category of delicta graviora – the most grave delicts.


The first and most important document is a Rescript signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin. This Rescript communicates that, last 4 December, the Pope decided to abolish the pontifical secret connected with reporting, trials and decisions regarding the crimes listed in the first article of the recent Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi, that is: cases of violence and sexual acts committed under threat or abuse of authority; cases of the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons; cases of child pornography; cases regarding the lack of reporting and the cover-up of the abusers on the part of bishops and superiors general of religious institutes.

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”, the instruction also states, 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.

With the second Rescript, also signed by Cardinal Parolin as well as by the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the modification of three articles of the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (published in 2001 and modified in 2010) were made known. It establishes that falling under the most grave delicts reserved for judgment by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are “the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of eighteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology”. Up until now, the age limit had been established at 14 years.

Finally, in another article of the same Rescript, it is now permitted that, in cases regarding these more grave delicts, any member of the lay faithful holding a doctorate in canon law can perform the role of “Advocate or Procurator”, and no longer only priests.

Historic decision, fruit of the February summit

Convened by Pope Francis in the Vatican in February 2019, the summit on the protection of minors continues to bear fruit. In fact, today, Tuesday, 17 December, an important decision is being announced. It would not be hazardous to define it as historical. That decision regards the pontifical secret. The Pope, in fact, via a Rescript has decided to abolish it in cases of the sexual abuse of minors, of sexual violence and child pornography.


This means that any reporting, testimony and documents produced in canonical trials related to such cases of sexual abuse – those kept in Vatican Dicastery archives as well as those found in diocesan archives – which until now were subject to the pontifical secret, can now be handed over when requested to lawful authorities in their respective countries. This is a sign of openness, transparency, and the willingness to collaborate with the civil authorities.

In the case of Vatican Dicasteries, the request must be forwarded through the international rogatory process customary in the context of relations between States. The procedure is different, instead, for cases where the documents being requested are kept in diocesan Chancery archives: the competent legal authorities in each respective country must forward the request directly to the bishop. Particular arrangements provided for in agreements between the Church and State remain unaffected.

Connected to last May’s Motu Proprio Vos estis lux mundi, the breadth of Pope Francis’ decision is evident: the well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the “pontifical” secret. The Rescript obviously does not affect the sacramental seal in any way, that is, the secret of confession, which is completely different than the pontifical secret which covers documentation and testimony. Neither does it mean that in these cases those documents produced in canonical trials should enter into the public domain or that they should become matter for public disclosure. The right of the victims and the witnesses to confidentiality must always be protected. Now, however, the documentation must be placed at the disposition of the civil authority for the purpose of investigating cases for which canonical proceedings have already begun.

The Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith comments on Pope Francis’ decision to abolish the pontifical secret in cases of sexual abuse, modifying the preceding norms.

Scicluna: “Transparency is being implemented at the highest levels”

“Transparency is now being implemented at the highest level”. This is how Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Archbishop of Malta, and Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith interprets the latest Rescript published on Tuesday, 17 December 2019 in an interview with Vatican Radio – Vatican News.READ ALSO17/12/2019


What importance does the Pope’s decision to abolish pontifical secrecy in cases of sexual violence in child abuse have?
I remember when the bishops were called to the Vatican by the Holy Father Francis in February 2019, that there was a full day of discussion on the question of transparency in cases of sexual misconduct.  In May 2019 we have a new law which also gave an important impact and also development in the same line, and now we have another law by the Holy Father that says that cases of sexual misconduct are not under the pontifical secret, that would be the highest level of confidentiality. That means, of course, the question of transparency now is being implemented at the highest level. 

What does this decision change in concrete terms?
It opens up, for example, avenues of communication with victims, of collaboration with the state.  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, authorized to share information with either state authorities or the victims. 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: it actually says, as also does Vos estis lux mundi, that 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. 

Does the abolition of pontifical secrecy mean that documents will become public?
The documents in a penal trial are not public domain, but they are available for authorities, or people who are interested parties, and authorities who have a statutory jurisdiction over the matter. 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. 

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