Vatican City (AFP) - Priests can no longer cite papal secrecy in abuse cases, the Vatican said Tuesday, the latest move by Pope Francis to combat silence surrounding paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church.
The Church has been rocked by thousands of reports of sexual abuse around the world by priests, and accusations of cover-ups by senior clergy.
Francis' latest instructions regarding Vatican law on sexual abuse say that the pontifical secret no longer applies "to accusations, trials and decisions" involving such cases.
Pontifical secrecy is a rule of confidentiality designed to protect sensitive information related to Church governance, such as diplomatic correspondence, personnel issues and alleged crimes.
Critics say the secrecy laws have prevented priests and victims from reporting abuse, as well as hindered national justice systems prosecuting cases.
The Vatican also announced on Tuesday that it was raising the age at which sexual images of a person were deemed child pornography from 14 to 18.
In May, the pope passed a landmark measure to oblige those who know about sex abuse to report it to their superiors, a move expected to bring even more cases to light.
In Tuesday's statement, issued on the Argentine pontiff's 83rd birthday, Francis spelt out the new obligations.
"The person who files the report, the person who alleges to have been harmed and the witnesses shall not be bound by any obligation of silence with regard to matters involving the case," he wrote.
- An 'all-out battle' -
Archbishop of Malta Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief sex crime investigator, called Francis' move an "epochal decision that removes obstacles and impediments."
He told the official Vatican News website that "the question of transparency now is being implemented at the highest level."
The pope has vowed an "all-out battle" against sex abuse within the Church, but some victims' groups have said concrete measures have been slow in coming.
Marie Collins, a child sexual abuse survivor who in 2017 resigned from a Vatican committee she said was failing to adequately tackle paedophilia, welcomed the pope's latest move.
"Excellent news," Collins wrote on Twitter, saying the committee had recommended the step. "At last a real and positive change."
Despite the lifting of papal secrecy, Francis qualified that discretion in sexual abuse cases was still required.
Information pertaining to such cases should be treated, "in such a way as to ensure its security, integrity and discretion... for the sake of protecting the good name, image and privacy of all persons involved," the pope wrote.
But that should not obstruct the law, the obligation to report abuses and the carrying out of requests by law enforcement, the instructions said.