Pope Francis "has abolished the pontifical secret in the case of sexual violence and the abuse of minors committed by members of the clergy" (see here). I've been reading Wikipedia about the "pontifical secret", but it is absolutely unhelpful.

Let us make an analogy. Consider the Ministry of Justice of Japan. What would count as "secrecy"? I mean, they clearly do not release every single ever produced document by the ministry (most of which is probably irrelevant to the public). Probably most of stuff are internal communications, or drafts, or so.

Does then secrecy mean that, in the case of someone demanding to have access to a document, it is not possible because it is protected by "secrecy"? Is that the sense of the pontifical secrecy, i.e. that of "classified"? Additionally, what is the difference between ordinary and pontifical secrecy? In practice, what does it mean?

Finally, what's about the jurisdiction? Does this apply to the Vatican only? Can the Vatican legally apply this status to document produced, say, in the archdiocese of Madrid (which is not an embassy, which do have some special status)?

  • 6
    I think this is a far better fit for Christianity.SE, since it involves Papal orders and the Catholic Church
    – Machavity
    Dec 17, 2019 at 21:33
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    It sounds pretty much like the Vatican version of declaring a document Classified, except breaking the secrecy is not just a crime, but a mortal sin. Can you clarify what kind of jurisdiction you're talking about in the 4th paragraph? Where the event that they want to make secret took place? Or where they can punish people for breaking it?
    – divibisan
    Dec 17, 2019 at 22:22
  • @Machavity Funnily enough, I had it written there and changed my mind just before posting it, thinking the question is about the political organisation of the Catholic Church, rather than about religion/beliefs. Hence my post here.
    – luchonacho
    Dec 18, 2019 at 0:54
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    No, it is not a Christianity question, since it doesn't seem to have any theological meaning behind it. If it is a "state secret" qualification, then it should be treated as any countries' official confidentiality rules, despite it being issued by the Vatican, which is a state. And its use, in this particular context, is not of sole interest to people wanting to learn about Christian dogma (and I choose that word carefully). If anything, other than here, Law would seem like an alternate home. Dec 18, 2019 at 4:53
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    @luchonacho Actually my political Catholicism question got an answer there. Remember, that site is a secular site, not a religious one
    – Machavity
    Dec 18, 2019 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


If this analogy/explanation helps:

"The pontifical secret was essentially the 'Top Secret' for the Vatican," says the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, Joshua McElwee. "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." [...]

The changes to the "pontifical secret" rule mark a sharp departure from the previous policy. While the Vatican's new decree includes guidance about maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of church proceedings, it promises to quash what has been a common refrain from church authorities involved in abuse cases — that they were not authorized to share information with statutory authorities or victims.

Basically, the new Vatican rules seem to allow [more] extensive cooperation with civil authorities in these matters:

According to Italian jurist Giuseppe Dalla Torre, ex-president of the Vatican’s tribunal, the new changes “contribute to favoring a transition in canon law from an attitude of diffidence and self-defense regarding civil law, to an attitude of trust and healthy collaboration.” [...]

“When civil law establishes an obligation to report on the part of someone informed about the facts,” he said, “the reduction of the pontifical secret and the detail on the limits of the ‘office secret’ permit a ready fulfillment of the requirements of the law, thereby favoring full collaboration with civil authorities and preventing illegitimate incursions of the civil authority into the canonical sphere.”

Basically, prior to this change, the penalties for breaking the pontifical secret, which included excommunication, could have applied to someone from the Curia who informed civil authorities of allegations of sexual abuse, prior to their full resolution by a church tribunal.

Outside of Vatican proper, it is indeed the case that civil authorities had the means to get such information anyway, e.g. as NPR notes:

Boston, Mass., attorney Mitchell Garabedian — who has represented hundreds of abuse survivors — called the shift "a small step" toward transparency that could help victims as they try to heal. But he added that many law enforcement agencies likely already had the power to use subpoenas to obtain the same result.

Hower, as AP notes

But even under the threat of subpoenas and raids, bishops have sometimes felt compelled to withhold canonical proceedings given the “pontifical secret” rule, unless given permission to hand documents over by the Vatican. The new [church] law makes that explicit permission no longer required.

Do note (for example) the long-running saga of Australian archbishop Wilson, in this context.

As I understand it, the Vatican essentially has no extradition treaties for its own citizens, with some exceptions (under art 22 of the Lateran Treaty) for people who have "taken refuge" in Vatican territory and/or buildings and are liable under both Italian and Vatican criminal law. So, other than threatening them with arrest abroad (possibly in violation of diplomatic immunity arrangements) there is/was no way to compel top Vatican officials to comply with criminal investigations in other countries, including the release of information. For example, last year the Vatican refused a French summons for a Spanish cardinal to appear to testify in a French court (in the trial of a French cardinal).


It looks like the change affects the nature of the "Seal of Confession" in the Catholic Church, which binds those administering the Sacrement of Penance to confidence with respect to the identity of the sinner and the sin (and includes interpreters used to facilitate communication between the Priest and the repentent). This confidence, if broken without permission of the Repentent, is an excomunicatable offense, meaning that the priest who reveals the secret is expelled from the church and is no longer permitted to minister to the faithful nor give or receive sacraments. This status can only be lifted by the Holy See (aka The Pope) though in the modern world, it will usually be if there is a sign of repentance from the excommunicated. It's important to note, this is an exile of sorts, not a kicking out of the faith, as Baptism in the Catholic Church cannot be revoked and typically is done within a month of birth of the child.

These matters are discussed in rule four of the wikipedia article provided. There are also some limited exceptions to this confidence, but because it is an excommuncable offense, it must be handled through the Pope. Typically the Priest will communicate via letters that are sent under seal to their bishop, then to the Papal Nucio (Fancy word for "Vatican City Ambassador" who will bring these letters to the Pope in diplomatic pouches (yeah, it's that serious.), and as such, these would be considered Papal secrets as well.

  • Interesting observation - confession secrecy has been a central tradition of the church and is closely linked to its theological position that confession means forgiveness. however... in the context of child abuse, has the papal secrecy only been applied when the abuse first came to light because of a confession? I can't see that too often from an abuser's confession. Though it could when a victim brought up abuse during a confession. Or has it been used as a convenient way to avoid the church falling into disrepute, whether or not a confession was involved? Dec 19, 2019 at 15:08
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: It could also be the case that the abusive priest confesses. It's not unheard of for criminals to confess their crimes to a priest, which often has the priest give them the penance of confessing to the police (Remeber, the priest can't tell at all... the penitent is not bound to secracy about his own sins) though following through is up to the criminal. It's a little difficult with a child because it would more than likely result from the child believing his/her actions as a victim are sinful (they are not). The abuser priests do tend to weaponize morality.
    – hszmv
    Dec 19, 2019 at 15:41
  • but I did mention that in my comment (see abuser). my point is are these pontifical secrets, in the case of child abuse, all linked to only cases where a confession was involved? or is the secret applied regardless of whether or not a confession was involved? again, your point that papal secret is tied to confessions, among other things, is a very good one, +1. but, in this case, is it the primary driver for this classification? Dec 19, 2019 at 15:55
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: In theory, no... as the wiki article links other accusations (such as information found in discovery for a trial in Vatican City). Confession and the limited ways of discussing matters internal to the church are just the most likely way for the matters to come under such protections.
    – hszmv
    Dec 19, 2019 at 16:06

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