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Pope Francis Changes Rule That Once Protected Church Abuse Suspects

For decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in scandal concerning sexual abuse among its ranks. Although this has sometimes taken the form of abuse against nuns, the most widely-known scandals tend to involve priests molesting children.

As has become more and more apparent as time goes on, these scandals didn't just concern the abuse itself, but also efforts by church officials to keep them under wraps and quietly transfer the priests involved elsewhere.

Although there are many elements to how this abuse was able to occur with virtual impunity for so long, one harmful factor was essentially written into church policy.

However, a recent decision by Pope Francis marks an effort to curb tools that accused abusers can use to protect themselves.

Starting in 1974, there was an official clause in Vatican policy called the "pontifical secret."

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As Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter explained, it was introduced "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."

Regardless of the original intentions behind this policy, however, this secrecy was found to protect abusers and facilitate cover-ups.

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As NPR reported, this not only gave anyone with information an excuse to not come forward, but silenced survivors and made cases of church sexual abuse all the more difficult to prosecute.

After all, the less that anyone knows about these cases, the less able they are to know whether anything is being done about them.

However, it seems that Pope Francis has just approved a church decree called a rescript, which officially abolished the concept of a pontifical secret.

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In practice, this means that law enforcement authorities will now be able to access previously secret documents and testimony relevant to abuse cases.

Both witnesses and alleged victims will also be under no obligation to keep silent about any experiences and information from here on out.

This not only ensures that those who have experienced abuse can speak freely, but allows them to access information about the details of their cases.

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As Vatican communications director Andrea Tornielli said, "The well-being of children and young people must always come before any protection of a secret, even the 'pontifical' secret."

Pope Francis also changed Vatican policies regarding members of the clergy who access child pornography.

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A separate rescript banned the possession and transmission of "pornographic images of minors under the age of eighteen, for purposes of sexual gratification."

For unclear reasons, the cutoff age for the previous relevant policy on child pornography was 14, rather than 18.

For Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer from Boston who represented hundreds of abuse survivors, the rescripts were a "small step."

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Although he told NPR that survivors may find this new transparency helpful, he added that various law enforcement agencies could already access this newly available information with a subpoena.

So what would constitute or big step for him?

In his words, "It is also now time for Pope Francis to mandate that crimes be reported to the police by bishops, religious superiors and others. And to make documents and testimony public with the appropriate redactions of victims' names."

h/t: NPR