SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s justice secretary criticized a Supreme Court decision allowing a Roman Catholic diocese to withhold the names of sex abuse victims who wish to remain private, saying Tuesday it would help the church protect pedophile priests.
The court’s ruling outraged authorities who are investigating sex abuse allegations against at least 17 priests and eight dioceses in the U.S. territory, where more than 70 percent of residents identify themselves as Catholic.
“Let’s not create a sanctuary of impunity,” said Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda. “I thought we were headed into the 21st century. I’m afraid not. We are once again in medieval times.”
The Supreme Court on Monday said leaders of the Diocese of Arecibo in northeast Puerto Rico do not need to share information about alleged abuse if the victims are adults who revealed the details during confession or wish to maintain their privacy.
The court stated the diocese must contact possible adult victims and allow them to decide whether to share information about their case with prosecutors. It said information that those victims provided through a confession is considered confidential and does not have to be shared. If the information was not shared during a confession, a lower court must decide whether the government can obtain the information through other means.
If the alleged abuse involves victims younger than 18, however, the court said the diocese must share information with prosecutors.
Arecibo Bishop Daniel Fernandez celebrated the court’s decision, particularly regarding the privacy of confession.
“It is essential for us that the court has recognized that when a person seeks a priest to reveal a personal matter, that communication is protected by absolute confidentiality,” he said.
The diocese has defrocked six priests over abuse allegations, one of whom faces criminal charges of committing lewd acts. It had filed suit against Miranda in February, arguing it should not have to turn over information to prosecutors that would reveal the identities of the alleged victims.
Miranda said prosecutors will continue their investigation and that he will consider whether to ask the court to reconsider its decision.
“The Supreme Court has just wasted a great opportunity,” Miranda said. “It will be extremely hard to press charges against pedophile priests under this burdensome process.”
Prosecutor Jose Capo said Monday’s ruling complicates efforts by the justice department to pursue diocese officials suspected of withholding information to protect priests. In the U.S. mainland, several church leaders have faced criminal charges for allegedly shielding priests from prosecution.
Critics noted the ruling comes about a week after Pope Francis begged for forgiveness while meeting with Catholics sexually abused by clergy and promised to hold bishops accountable for their handling of such cases.
“This has a very negative and very embarrassing impact on Puerto Rico,” said Francisco Cartagena, a local human rights activist. “This is going to prevent the development of preventive mechanisms that are sorely lacking.”