The German bishops have welcomed the abolition of the "papal secret" in the prosecution of abuse. The former church chief prosecutor for abuse offenses, Archbishop Scicluna, even called the decision "epochal".
The abuse commissioner of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Stephan Ackermann, has welcomed the abolition of the so-called papal secret in the prosecution of abuse offenses.
Pope Francis' instruction was "the right step in a long process of the church, which was seen as necessary from many sides," the bishop of Trier said in Bonn on Tuesday. He said the decision would allow for greater transparency and improved cooperation with state authorities.
Ackermann pointed out that the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, had already called for this change last year during a lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
A law decreed by Pope Francis on Tuesday abolished the strictest duty of confidentiality previously in force in church criminal proceedings for sexual offenses. This means that, among other things, victims cannot be obliged to maintain secrecy. Also, that cooperation between the ecclesiastical and secular judiciary will be facilitated. Confessional secrecy remains strictly protected.
German Catholics welcome abolition of secrecy obligation
The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) also welcomed the Pope's move. President Thomas Sternberg said in response to a question that it was "an important step for more transparency in church proceedings and in cooperation with state jurisdiction". This, he says, implements an important demand of the anti-abuse summit held earlier this year.
"It is of great importance for victims of abuse to now also be able to receive information about the church's punishments," Sternberg emphasized. "The Church thus demonstrates its will to continue consistently along the path of enlightenment, victim orientation and prevention."
Canon law expert: lifting of confidentiality "epoch-making
The lifting of "papal secrecy" in abuse cases is an "epochal" decision, according to the church's former chief prosecutor for abuse crimes, Archbishop Charles Scicluna. So far, victims have not even had the right to know the verdict on their perpetrator, the Maltese archbishop told the Internet portal "Vatican News" (Tuesday).
The new law gives Catholic dioceses, for example, the option of making their sexual abuse records available to the state judiciary, Scicluna said. He added that this did not mean that all files would become public. Thus, the instruction in question also emphasizes the right of all involved to maintain their good name, reputation and privacy.
At an international child protection summit at the Vatican last February, the secrecy order was discussed as an "impediment to legitimate information for victims and the general public," the canon lawyer said.Communications were blocked, he said, because "papal secrecy" is the highest level of secrecy in church law.
Maltese cleric Scicluna was in charge of prosecuting abuse cases at Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2002 to 2012. He has been archbishop of Malta since 2015. In 2018, Pope Francis sent him to the Latin American country as a special investigator following the abuse scandal in Chile.
Child protection expert praises lifting of 'papal secret'
German psychologist and child protection expert Hans Zollner considers the lifting of the so-called papal secret in sexual abuse proceedings a "major breakthrough". It is now clear from the highest level "that every ecclesiastical body must hand over corresponding files to the legitimate state investigating authorities upon request," Zollner told the Catholic News Agency (KNA) on Tuesday. Whether papal curia or diocese administration – all would have to cooperate.
In many countries – such as the U.S. – this has been the case for some time, according to the president of the Child Protection Center at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Nevertheless, individual church functionaries have recently still refused such cooperation with reference to papal official secrecy. This had happened in part even in cases where documents were not even subject to the highest church secrecy level.
To exclude procedures because of the suspicion of abuse from the "papal secret", had suggested among other things the pontifical child protection commission already earlier, so Zollner further. But only the crisis summit, which the pope had called to Rome at the end of February, had reaffirmed the demand. And yet Francis had to overcome resistance.
In the same vein, Zollner, who is also a member of the Child Protection Commission, praised the increase in victim protection in church criminal law in the case of child pornography. The Vatican raised the age from 14 to 18 years.
The official admission of church lawyers who are not clerics to corresponding criminal proceedings is also a step forward, according to Zollner. This would confirm earlier initiatives in which bishops occasionally commissioned non-clerics for tasks in church processes.
Victims' association welcomes abolition of confidentiality requirement
The spokesman for the victims' association "Eckiger Tisch," Matthias Katsch, has welcomed the abolition of the papal secret. It is a "great symbolic act," said Katsch on Wednesday in the ZDF-Morgenmagazin. The decisive factor now is how the instruction is implemented on the ground.
Katsch emphasized that the papal step is of great importance for the processing of abuse cases. If the archives were opened, it would also give victims the opportunity to go before secular courts. "There is no more excuse at this point," Katsch said.
Canon lawyer Wijlens highly pleased with Pope's decision
The abolition of "papal secrecy" in the prosecution of abuse crimes, announced by Pope Francis, is a major step in coming to terms with abuse in the Catholic Church, according to Erfurt-based canon lawyer Myriam Wijlens. The rights of victims of abuse and also the rights of witnesses would be strengthened, the professor, who is also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children, told the Catholic News Agency (KNA) in Erfurt on Tuesday. He said the pope was showing that he was serious about fighting abuse.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children had lobbied hard for such a step in recent months; she herself was very pleased with the decision, Wijlens stressed. She spoke of a balancing act between victim protection and education.
Many victims are afraid of being traumatized for a second time if abuse becomes known to the public. The new regulation guarantees them confidentiality. At the same time, it rejects any cover-up. He said there is no longer a ban on reporting acts of abuse to state authorities.
Wijlens pointed out that the Latin term "sub secreto pontificio" has often been translated as "papal secret". But it is about "confidentiality" and not about secrecy, she stressed. The Pope has made this clear.
Norbert Ludecke, an ecclesiastical law expert from Bonn, described the step ordered by Pope Francis as an important and symbolic act. Thus a stone has been broken out of the "hermetic wall" of papal secrecy, Ludecke said in response to a question from the Catholic News Agency (KNA).
In the future, state obligations to report abuse could be observed without coming into conflict with church law, he added. Also, the Vatican can no longer simply refer to papal secrecy in requests for legal assistance from other states.
However, the theologian was skeptical with regard to the practice. Whether this will really achieve more transparency will only become clear when it is actually implemented.
Abuse victims: an end to excuses from bishops
One of the spokesmen in the fight against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Chilean Juan Carlos Cruz, has also welcomed the lifting of the "papal secret" in abuse proceedings. Now there is an end to excuses by bishops; in the future, documents must be handed over to civil judicial authorities, Cruz said Tuesday on Twitter. He spoke of an "important day for transparency and for justice for the victims".
Now it is possible to "expose criminal priests and bishops who previously acted under the pretext of 'papal secret' and blocked justice," Cruz further wrote. This innovation owes much to survivors of sexual abuse who did not let up in their fight.
Juan Carlos Cruz, along with Jose Andres Murillo and James Hamilton, helped bring the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Chile to public attention. The three had been abused as teenagers by Fernando Karadima, a priest who has since been defrocked. In spring 2018, Pope Francis met with the men for several days at the Vatican to discuss the causes and consequences of the scandal.