NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pope To Loosen Secrecy Requirements Around Clerical Sex Abuse Cases


Pope Francis says he is going to loosen the secrecy requirements around cases of clerical sex abuse. He is ending the use of the so-called pontifical secret in abuse proceedings. Let's talk about what this is and what this means with Joshua McElwee. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, joining us from Rome. Joshua, welcome back.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

GREENE: So can you just tell us what exactly is changing here?

MCELWEE: Well, the Vatican announced today, essentially, that the Pope has abolished what's called the pontifical secret. This was the practice of imposing really strict confidentiality rules in any sort of proceeding at the Vatican regarding a priest accused of sexual abuse or misconduct. That is now gone. It's something the abuse survivors and advocates have called for for decades. Vatican officials I have spoken to have said this was a move to show that they're serious about this. They want the church officials across the world to be working with local authorities. In order to do that, they had to get rid of the secrecy requirement. And they're also hoping that it allows abuse survivors who come forward with cases to more easily follow how the church is responding and what measures are being taken to make sure kids are safe.

GREENE: Can you tell us why this pontifical secrecy was imposed in the first place?

MCELWEE: Yeah. The Vatican is an independent state, just like any other country in the world, and it has different levels of secrecy on different documents. All Vatican officials and - on the material they work on work on kind of a basic level of secrecy. The pontifical secret was essentially the top secret for the Vatican. It was imposed officially in 1974 as a way of trying to protect the name of both the accuser and the accused until the point at which there had been a firm judgment. And in recent years, abuse survivors had said this really had served to protect abusers, to make sure the community did not know that they had been accused and was limiting the ability of local authorities kind of to take whatever measures they needed to take to keep communities safe.

GREENE: So this move - I mean, how significant is it in the context of everything we've reported on?

MCELWEE: It's really being praised across the board today. Several abuse survivors, including one who had served on a commission to advise Pope Francis and had been quite critical of the Vatican's slowness to response - an Irish survivor named Marie Collins - really praised the move. She said it's something they've been calling for for a long time. And, obviously, it comes in the context of Pope Francis really trying to show the world that he and the Catholic Church are very serious on the issue. The Pope held a big summit of all the heads of the world's bishops conferences in February. It was the first of its kind. And since then, he's put in place three concrete reforms, this today being the third of those, so - in just eight months' time for the Vatican doing a number of things, which is kind of light speed for the Catholic Church.

GREENE: And, Joshua, the pope also said the church is now going to label any pornography with people under the age of 18 as child pornography. It had been the age of 14. What was that move about?

MCELWEE: Yeah. So at the same time the Pope removed the pontifical secret from these cases, he made a change also to a different part of the church's laws kind of updating what's considered the most serious crime for the church. In the past, the church had labeled child pornography as being any image taken of a child 14 or younger. The Pope has now made that 18 or younger to align with more kind of modern notions of when a person becomes an adult and how serious it would be even for a priest or some Catholic official to have such pornography on their devices.

GREENE: Joshua McElwee is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter joining us from Rome. Thanks so much.

MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.