Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Communication On "The Pontifical Secret" and The Obligation to Inform Appropriate Legal Authority

It is true that art. 30 of the Motu Proprio “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” 30 April 2001, amended by Benedict XVI on 21 May 2010, applied to the handling of sexual abuse cases the norms on pontifical secret. In an end note it refers to the General Regulations of the Roman Curia, 30 April 1999, which laid down this secret for the work in the Roman Curia. These regulations in their turn refer to an Instruction of the Secretariat of State, dated 4 February 1974 which prescribed that allegations of “delicta contra fidem et contra mores” (crimes against faith and customs), as well as the processes that deal with them are subject to pontifical secret.

However, since 2010 no Church authority --Bishop or Major Superior-- can shield themselves in this norm to avoid reporting to civil authorities the allegations of sexual abuse they may receive. The Holy See made clear that, in those countries where civil laws lay down this reporting as an obligation, Church authorities should abide by the civil law. This was expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) first informally in the section of the Vatican website on sexual abuse (2010) and then more formally in the guidelines that the CDF sent to all Bishops’ Conferences (2011) with normative directives to be taken into account in the protocols that each Conference should issue.

It should be added that some Bishops’ Conferences had included this obligation of reporting allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities before the Holy See instructed them about it. This was the case, for instance, of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference whose Protocol on Sexual Abuse included it since its first version as well as the indication of holding in abeyance (pausing) the Church’s investigation if a court case is opened in a civil court. This provision has the purpose of not interfering with the civil authorities until they reach a decision on the case. As the South African Protocol drew on that of the Australian bishops, it is possible that the norm existed also in your country long ago.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the media tend to misinterpret the secret to be kept by the bishops, investigators, ecclesiastical judges, etc. presenting it as aimed at facilitating the cover up of priests involved in sexual abuse. They lose sight that this secret is of the same nature as the confidentiality -- secret or silence of office-- that lawyers, doctors, etc. are supposed to observe regarding what they get to know about their clients or patients. Nobody has difficulty to understand the latter. The not infrequent cases of false accusations of sexual abuse against priests are a good reason to keep confidential these matters thus protecting the reputation of those involved.

In honour of the truth it should also be said that there has been negligence on the part of Bishops and Major Superiors in the way allegations of sexual abuse were handled: not acting on them and just changing the accused priests from one parish to another, or not making a decision once they receive the reports and conclusions of the investigators… So far few Bishops and Major Superiors have been called to task for this negligence. A case of this kind was that of Bishop McGee -- former private secretary of Paul VI -- in Ireland who was asked to resign but there have been probably many more. I think that new norms about negligence “in vigilando” will soon be passed by the Holy See as there is pressure from different civil quarters on it. Recently this year two UN Committees made this point among others in their comments on the reports submitted by the Holy See as a signatory to UN Conventions on the protection of minors and on torture.

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