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Pope ends �top secret� classification for clergy abuse claims

The Vatican will no longer treat clergy sexual abuse allegations as classified information to be withheld from civil authorities and the public. On Dec. 17, 2019, Pope Francis announced the concept of “pontifical secret” – essentially the church’s in-house classification of top secret – no longer applies to accusations, trials or decisions regarding clergy misconduct.

This change in policy comes after years of mounting pressure, with accusations of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups across the globe. So how might this decree affect clergy abuse cases going forward?

What the change means for survivors

The Vatican’s decision to remove pontifical secret protections for clergy misconduct does not fundamentally change how the church approaches cases. It does, however, open the door for more cooperation with civil law enforcement.

Because clergy abuse allegations are no longer protected by pontifical secret, it means clergy are no longer barred from providing related information to civil authorities, such as police or prosecutors. In fact, the order explicitly says “office confidentiality shall not prevent” church leaders from fulfilling legal obligations.

In addition, the change means survivors will be able to see more information about their case than before, while both they and witnesses will be able to speak freely about the case, if they wish.

The new policy does not solve every problem

The church, for many years, claimed the institutional policy of secrecy protected the privacy of survivors. Skeptics, however, pointed out it essentially kept disturbing clergy abuse cases out of the public eye, while providing an excuse to not share information with authorities or survivors.

This new policy does not address every criticism. It does not require clergy to report instances of sexual abuse to civil authorities, for example. Rather, they simply must adhere to civil reporting laws. (In Michigan, clergy members that learn of abuse during “pastoral communications” are not legally required to report it to authorities.)

Similarly, the church does not plan to make its internal legal findings public.

While this decision appears to be a step forward, there are still many areas in which improvements could be made.

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