Pope dismissed the 'pontifical secret' in cases of clergy abuse

VATICAN CITY: The pontifical secret used to be removed, after mounting criticism that high levels of confidentiality were used to protect, silence victims and keep law enforcement from investigating crimes.

In a new document, Francis ruled that information on cases of abuse should be protected by church leaders to ensure security, integrity and confidentiality. But he said the pontifical secret no longer applies to accusations, trials and decisions related to canon law.

Francis also raised the cutoff age from 14 to 18 below where the Vatican viewed pornographic images.

The new laws were issued on Tuesday, Francis' 83rd birthday, as he struggled to respond to the global outbreak of the abuse scandal, his own inaccuracies and demands for greater transparency and accountability from victims, enforcement of law and ordinary Catholics.

The new standards are the latest amendment to the in-house canon law of the Catholic Church _ an identical legal code that promotes ecclesial justice for crimes of faith _ in this case related to or vulnerable to the people of priests, bishops or cardinals.

Pope Benedict XVI decided in 2001 that these cases should be remembered under `` pontifical secret, '' the highest form of church secrecy. The Vatican has long asserted that such confidentiality is necessary to protect the privacy of the victim, the reputation of the accused and the integrity of the canonical process.

However, such a secret served to conceal the scandal, preventing law enforcement from accessing documents and victims of silence, many of whom often believed that pontifical secrets prevented them from going to police to report their abusive priests.

While the Vatican has long tried to prevent this from happening, it also did not require bishops and religious superiors to report to the police, and initially encouraged bishops not to do so.

The Vatican is under increasing pressure to change in-house procedures and cooperate with law enforcement, and its failure to do so has resulted in unprecedented raids in recent years in diocesan choceries of police from Belgium to Texas and Chile.

But even under the penalty of subpoenas and raids, bishops felt that keeping the psychological proceedings secret unless the Vatican granted the Vatican documents

National inquiries, jury deliberations, UN condemnation and increasingly expensive civil litigation undermine church credibility worldwide.