ROME — Pope Francis has lifted a long-standing form of classification used in sexual abuse cases.
The abolition of the so-called "pontifical secrecy" rule does not mean that the documents and testimony from the church's abuse trials will become public. Instead, the Vatican said in making the decree public Tuesday, the information can be handed over to "lawful authorities" who make the request.
The Vatican had long said that its highest form of confidentiality was necessary to safeguard its in-house legal process and the privacy of victims. But the practice has drawn criticism from many advocates and some figures inside the church, who say pontifical secrecy keeps hidden the crimes of abusers and the full scale of the crisis.
"At last a real and positive change," Marie Collins, an Irish abuse victim and former member of the pope's commission on sexual abuse, said on Twitter.
The change comes as the latest in reforms that attempt to make the Vatican more cooperative with outside criminal authorities - and ultimately more competent in dealing with its central crisis. Francis's own missteps on several high-profile cases have added to the pressure to reform, following a year in which numerous cardinals and bishops have been accused of protecting abuser priests or committing crimes themselves.
The Vatican touted the changes on Tuesday as "historical" and "epochal," and said it continues Francis's "path of transparency." Abolishing pontifical secrecy was a common demand made by abuse victims, as well as several prelates, at a summit on tackling the abuse crisis that the pope convened in February.
A major U.S.-based group for victims of clerical abuse called the reforms "overdue," but said the on-paper changes needed follow-through.
"For years church officials have resisted releasing information publicly that could help protect children and support survivors, such as the names, whereabouts, and current status of accused clergy," the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a statement. The group pointed to Catholic Church in Illinois, which last year was said to be withholding the names of 500 priests accused of abusing minors, according to a state attorney general's report.
The changes have no bearing on another area of Catholic Church confidentiality - information relayed to priests during sacramental confession. Even as some jurisdictions have tried to hold the church accountable for not sharing information about abuse learned during confession, the Vatican has called the "seal of confession" inviolable and an "intrinsic" requirement of the church.
The abolition of pontifical secrecy applies to the "reporting, trials and decisions" in abuse cases, as well as those relating to child pornography and the coverup of abusers by bishops and other leaders. The church said Tuesday that such cases should still be treated with "security, integrity and confidentiality." The Vatican also issued another decree raising from 14 to 18 the age of subjects in images that can be considered child pornography.
This article was written by Chico Harlan, a reporter for The Washington Post.