A Papal Christmas Present for Victims

The news from the Vatican could not be more surprising. Out of the blue, Pope Francis has ended pontifical secrecy in clergy abuse cases, and just in time for Christmas. He has issued a 5-point document, On the Confidentiality of Legal Proceedings that goes into effect immediately. It declares that the pontifical secret may no longer applies to any accusations, proceedings, or final decisions involving clergy abuse. (He also raised the age of child pornography to 18, and fired an abusive bishop for good measure.)

For clergy abuse victims and survivors, this is like a big, shiny Christmas totally-unforeseen present from the pope. Advocates in and outside the Church have long criticized papal secrecy, and to many clergy abuse victims, pontifical secrecy means cover-up, for it kept everything safely under wraps, where only the elite members of the boys’ club could know about such cases.

But why did the pope do this and why now? Perhaps the fact that grand juries as well as over a dozen US states’ attorneys general are investigating the Church has something to do with it. The dioceses are now under the most unwelcome attention of the secular authorities since the Reformation. They are now issuing subpoenas and demanding information.

That this is the underlying situation is confirmed by Italian jurist Giuseppe Dalla Torre, a former president of the Vatican’s tribunal.

Dalla Torre said “When civil law establishes an obligation to report on the part of someone informed about the facts,” he said, “the reduction of the pontifical secret and the detail on the limits of the ‘office secret’ permit a ready fulfillment of the requirements of the law, thereby favoring full collaboration with civil authorities and preventing illegitimate incursions of the civil authority into the canonical sphere.” (Emphasis added.)

It’s all about keeping the Church separate and independent from the state. Another bit of confirmation comes from the instruction itself.

3. In the cases referred to in No. 1, the information is to be treated in such a way as to ensure its security, integrity and confidentiality in accordance with the prescriptions of canons 471, 2° CIC and 244 §2, 2° CCEO, for the sake of protecting the good name, image and privacy of all persons involved.

Canon 471 of the Code of Canon Law (and the matching law for the Eastern Churches) is for those to be admitted to an office in a diocesan curia.

observe secrecy within the limits and according to the manner determined by law or by the Bishop. (Emphasis added.)

As ever, “protecting the good name, image and privacy” most likely is not about victims, but the accused clerics and their judges. Which means, that, when judged necessary or advisable by the presiding bishop, secrecy still may be applied.

This is all so very typical of the Roman Catholic Church, and proof that the revered spin-doctors of the Vatican never take Christmas off.

Nonetheless, I am surprised and grateful for the pope’s action. Even this small token of reform took some courage, for the old political adage that states that the most dangerous time for a dictatorship is when it decides to be good. Many regimes have fallen when they try to become legitimate.

The Catholic Church has lost a lot of legitimacy over the sexual abuse of children.  It may well be that there is even more sins hidden in the darkness than even the pope knows due to the high levels of secrecy. Time will tell. For now, though, gratitude is appropriate, and what better time than at the celebration of Jesus’ birth?