United States: How The Pope's Motu Proprio Impacts Dioceses' Canonical And Civil Law Reporting Requirements

Last Updated: June 4 2019
Article by Eric N. Kniffin and Alex C. Myers

While there are several articles that have already been written on the broader significance of Pope Francis’ new motu proprio, “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” we thought it would be helpful to offer some thoughts specifically on what the pope’s directive means for dioceses. Although the document deals with dioceses' reporting obligations within the Church, we believe it may also have an important impact on dioceses' civil obligations and liabilities related to civil abuse.


Within the Church, the motu proprio broadens the types of sexual abuse dioceses are required to address. First, while the Essential Norms are focused on the sexual abuse of minors, the motu proprio also includes all clergy sexual abuse against adults under two circumstances: (1) when clergy forces someone into a sexual act through violence or abuse of authority, or (2) when clergy are involved in sexual acts with someone with physical or mental deficiencies. Second, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Essential Norms address sexual abuse allegations against priests and deacons, the motu proprio covers allegations against all “clerics,” including bishops, and also “members of Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life.”

The motu proprio provides a broad outline of how bishops are to handle reports of sexual abuse generally, and how Metropolitans and the Holy See will handle reports made against bishops. But it recognizes that each diocese will need to develop its own policies to implement these changes.

Perhaps the most criticized aspect of the motu proprio is that it does not include a mandatory role for a lay oversight board, as the USCCB’s Charter does. However, Article 13 leaves room for lay involvement, and specifically anticipates that episcopal conferences like the USCCB will issue directives on this matter. Cardinal DiNardo confirmed in his May 9 statement that the USCCB’s committees have already started work on implementation measures, which will be ready for deliberation at the USCCB’s Plenary Assembly in June.

Under Article 2, dioceses have until July 1, 2020, to establish systems for handling and receiving the reports against clerics described under Article 1. However, the norms themselves go into effect on June 1, 2019.

Even though dioceses will almost certainly be receiving additional guidance from the USCCB in the months to come, dioceses should start the process of implementing the motu proprio’s reforms now. With the June 1, 2019, effective date and the significant publicity around motu proprio’s reforms, dioceses should anticipate receiving a broader scope of allegations in the near term, and should identify provisional policies and procedures for handling these allegations. This most likely means making adjustments to the existing reporting program each diocese has established under the Charter and Essential Norms. At a minimum, internal discussions should be underway to address how allegations will be handled until the USCCB provides more uniform guidance.

We also recommend that dioceses decide how they will handle reports about clergy and non-clergy involved in sexual matters that do not clearly fall within the motu proprio’s scope—for example, allegations about a clergyman’s use of adult pornography or involvement in a sexual relationship with someone who does not qualify as a minor or vulnerable adult. The Pope’s motu proprio is expected to prompt previously unreported allegations about sexual behavior, both recent and from decades in the past. Dioceses would do well to consider in advance whether to apply the motu proprio’s principles, especially its whistleblower protections, to different types of reports about sexual activity involving clergy and non-clergy.


While the pope’s motu proprio is limited to clergy’s and dioceses’ reporting obligations under Church law, we believe the pope’s commitment to reform has important implications for the Church’s obligations and liabilities related to sexual abuse under civil law. As our firm reported last month to the National Diocesan Attorneys Association, at least thirty states in 2019 are looking at changing civil statutes of limitations for sexual abuse. Several states are also looking at legislation that would require priests to report information about sexual abuse they hear in the confessional.

In the face of these proposals, it is very important that the Church continue to take steps to show state legislatures that it takes sexual abuse seriously and that it continues to take steps to protect children in particular. It is helpful that Church law now makes clear that everyone in the Church is required to report abuse within the Church, and that the Church requires clergy to fulfill their reporting obligations under state law. We believe the USCCB’s meeting in June will be crucial in building on the motu proprio, and that dioceses must likewise continue to demonstrate that they are committed to protecting youth and implementing reforms.

We look forward to working with you in the months to come to help implement Pope Francis’ motu proprio and any follow up steps from the USCCB.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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