The Vatican had long said the rule was necessary to safeguard its in-house legal process and the privacy of survivors. 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 survivor and former member of the pope's commission on sexual abuse, said on Twitter.
The change is the latest in a series of 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 change Tuesday as "epochal" and said it continues Francis's "path of transparency." Abolishing pontifical secrecy was a common demand made by abuse survivors 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 people who have been abused by clergy members called the reforms "overdue" but said the on-paper changes need 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 (SNAP) said in a statement. The group pointed to the 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 change has 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.
Even after the new decree, many outside experts emphasized other ways in which the church can improve its transparency. The Vatican does not publicize statistics on abuse claims. It does not explain the reasoning behind most personnel moves, including those that probably are influenced by abuse allegations. And when its disciplinary body takes on cases, even victims sometimes do not learn of the outcomes.
Clerics aren't explicitly required to report abuse allegations to police, but church law states that officials should comply with obligations in their own countries.
The church is under pressure to be more open with criminal authorities, as investigators worldwide have been more willing in recent years to use their powers against the church.
In Australia, a jury has already found Cardinal George Pell guilty of sexual abuse charges — a conviction he is appealing. In Argentina, a court recently found two priests guilty of abusing former students. In the United States, more than a dozen state attorneys general have opened investigations or reviews of clergy abuse.
In the past, even if church officials were asked for information from civil authorities, they could have declined by quoting the pontifical secret rule, said Charles Scicluna, a Maltese archbishop who is the Vatican's lead sex abuse investigator.
"Now, that impediment, we might call it that way, has been lifted," Scicluna said in an interview published by the Vatican's official media arm.
Scicluna also said that under the new rule, the Vatican would have the authority to share information with victims.
"Information is of the essence if we really want to work for justice," he said. "And so, the freedom of information to statutory authorities and to victims is something that is being facilitated by this new law."