A New Zealand church abuse survivor says the Vatican’s decision to abolish secrecy clauses for Catholic clerical sex crime cases is “far too late”.

Pope Francis this week announced “pontifical secrecy” would no longer apply to child abuse complaints. The decision meant abuse victims and witnesses would be freed from confidentiality obligations.

New Zealand author Mike Ledingham​ said the Papal announcement was “bull”, many years overdue, and a reaction to the perception churches could no longer dodge being held to account for child abuse.

Published in Stuff

“Now they know it’s all coming out and these royal commissions are opening doors.”

“It’s a step in the right direction but it’s a very small step,” said Dr Murray Heasley​, Auckland-based spokesman for Survivors of Abuse in Faith-based Institutions.

The Vatican announcement followed recent local Catholic scandals including the resignation of Rangi Davis from Te Rōpū Tautoko, the resignation of Palmerston North bishop Charles Drennan​, and the desecration of “loud fence” memorial ribbons in Onehunga.

Heasley said secrecy had long typified Catholic responses to sexual abuse allegations.

He said the church previously protected offenders, such as Marist Brother Michael Beaumont, by moving child molesters to different church locations.

Religious historian Professor Peter Lineham​ said this week’s decision was significant and “various statuses of secrecy” had epitomised aspects of Catholic teaching and practice.

He said the best-known of these was the Seal of the Confessional, which was considered absolute.

That seal still generated controversy, he said, as it barred priests from divulging the nature of even serious crimes confessed to.

Pontifical secrecy for child abuse cases, introduced in 2001, had ostensibly been intended as a means to protect victims.

“There was a great deal of concern that the Catholic Church was inclined to blunder in this area, was inclined to upset victims,” Lineham said.

But instead of helping victims, pontifical secrecy “became a protection for priestly misbehaviour”, he added.

The Pope’s announcement effectively suggested it was in the Church’s interest to report alleged abusers to secular authorities, Lineham said.

The Catholic Church in New Zealand said it welcomed the decision to lift secrecy obligations.

It said the national Catholic Bishops Conference and several religious orders had already lifted confidentiality obligations to let survivors engage with the Royal Commission.

The Church was “strongly committed to cooperating with the police and judicial authorities in such matters,” Wellington Cardinal John Dew said in a statement published in NZ Catholic.

“The New Zealand Church’s complaints process provides that we will encourage and support complainants in sexual abuse cases to go to the police,” Cardinal Dew said.

Survivor groups abroad welcomed the move but said the real test would start when Catholic hierarchy had to respond to “national inquiries, grand jury subpoenas and criminal prosecutors who are increasingly demanding all internal documentation about abusers,” AP reported.

The Pope’s announcement did not affect the confessional seal.

The new rules around secrecy take effect on January 1.

By John Weeks
Published in Stuff
20 December 2019