Clerical Misconduct on ‘Hook-Up’ Apps Poses Fresh Challenges for Bishops

Experts hope the recent headlines will be a wake-up call for compromised clergy, and they are calling on bishops to take this problem seriously and intervene when necessary.

Seminaries typically require first-year students to suspend their smartphone-facilitated activities for a lengthy period to develop an “internal freedom” from digital preoccupations.
Seminaries typically require first-year students to suspend their smartphone-facilitated activities for a lengthy period to develop an “internal freedom” from digital preoccupations. (photo: SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock)

A spate of online investigations over the past month, exposing the alleged use of social media “hook-up” apps by clergy in the United States and in the Vatican, has ignited a national debate on privacy issues in the digital age. 

Experts who work closely with U.S. seminaries and dioceses to address sexual misconduct were not surprised by the headlines marking another front in Church scandals. And, though some disagreed with the way the Catholic website The Pillar published its recent investigations linking clergy with hook-up apps, the experts emphasized that this behavior was part of a broader problem that required a clear and compassionate response from bishops.

Dominican Father Joseph Fox, the vicar for canonical services for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and a canon lawyer who advises a number of U.S. dioceses, acknowledged that Church leaders have already been grappling with such cases. He referenced one instance he was aware of involving a priest’s blatant use of a gay hook-up app in a public setting.

“The parishioners blew the whistle,” Father Fox told the Register. “They knew because they were at a gym and someone told them, ‘Hey, I saw your pastor on Grindr.’”

Forensic psychologist and certified sex-addiction therapist Shannon Mullen, who evaluates clergy and seminarians, was saddened but unfazed by the breaking headlines.  

“We have this problem in the clergy because the community at large has this problem,” she told the Register. 

“With shifts in technology there is a greater level of access [to prospective sexual partners], but also the potential to get caught.”

Decisive Action

Given these realities, Church personnel with firsthand knowledge of this development may question the public outing of a priest, but they also want bishops to act decisively. 

“I can’t see a diocese paying investigators to review priests’ online activity,” Father Carter Griffin, the rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., told the Register. “But if information comes forward I hope a diocese would take it seriously.” 

“A priest is ultimately not a private individual,” said Father Griffin, the author of Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest. “His mission is to serve the people of God and the Church.”

After The Pillar published an investigation that purported to link user data generated by several hook-up apps to local parishes in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, a representative from the archdiocese said it took the alleged misconduct seriously, while questioning the methods used to collect it. 

“It is not acceptable for any member of the clergy to use any app or website in a way that is inconsistent with Church teachings and their own religious vows [or] with Church teaching,” Maria Margiotta, the archdiocese’s spokeswoman, told the Register in an email message. “This matter is currently under review.”

Hook-up apps facilitate sexual contact by harnessing geolocation technology, which taps data acquired from an individual’s computer or smartphone to identify or describe the user’s actual physical location.

Grindr contends that it does not share users’ personal information. But the company, whose app is primarily used by millions of gay men, was fined $11.7 million this year by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for illegally sharing users’ private information with advertisers, increasing likelihood that closeted homosexuals could be exposed. 

Beyond the threat of reputational damage, experts warn that apps designed around sexual gratification can fuel mental-health issues, like anxiety and depression, and boost the transmission of STDs. Some companies already provide paid alerts from local health authorities to address potential medical issues associated with having multiple sexual partners. 

Further, Grindr, Tinder and other hook-up sites have been linked to the sexual trafficking of minors. One problem, critics charge, is that the age of users on the Grindr app is not verified, and teens routinely visit the site. 

Grindr says it takes these issues seriously. However, a Texas man committed suicide in early August after police arrested him for online solicitation of a minor on Grindr — a charge the man’s family has disputed.  

Seminarians and Social Media

Father Thomas Berg, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who teaches moral theology at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers and screens candidates for the seminary, told the Register that Catholic formators were aware of the problems posed by these apps and addressed the issue directly during the course of an intensive vetting and discernment process designed to evaluate each candidate’s readiness to live the priestly vow of celibacy. 

“There is no way for any candidate for the priesthood to simply understand celibacy as a commitment to not marry,” said Father Berg. “It means so much more than that. And during the period of formation we have benchmarks for them to hit in terms of a spiritual internalization of that commitment. Celibacy has everything to do with their commitment to Jesus and their love for the Church.”

Church reforms instituted in the wake of the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis have dramatically curtailed sex crimes involving minors. But bishops and seminaries are also aware that young recruits have grown up in a digital world that has upended established moral codes and pushed social boundaries. By age 11, most have been exposed to pornography across multiple social-media platforms, including Instagram and Twitter. 

That scourge has fed sexual addiction, which has been further bolstered by hook-up apps that some experts believe are designed to reinforce compulsive behavior.

“The use of pornography that is consistent or accelerating, the use of deviant pornography or contact with another person through [online] chats would be show stoppers [for advancement to the priesthood] unless there are signs of real growth,” said Father Griffin. “We’ve learned a lot in the past 20 to 30 years, and we’re doing a better job of forming men for chaste celibacy.”

Social-Media Fast

And, today, seminaries typically require first-year students to suspend their smartphone-facilitated activities for a lengthy period to develop an “internal freedom” from digital preoccupations. The social-media fast, along with ongoing oversight and support throughout formation, is intended to help seminarians avoid the allure of pornography and apps that can provide a “gateway” to instant sexual gratification.   

After ordination, however, the guardrails come off. A priest who has struggled with addictive sexual behavior in the past may face headwinds, particularly during a personal crisis or Church scandal. 

At the seminary, “we throw everything we have at this problem so [the men] can be happy, healthy, holy priests,” said Father Berg. “Dioceses have to make a culture shift to continue that support for their priests after ordination.”

At the same time, Father Sean Kilcawley, the director of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska’s Freedom From Pornography apostolate, hopes the recent scandal will be a wake-up call for priests who have allowed their misconduct to become entrenched, increasing the risk of harm to themselves and others.

Priests who turn to hook-up apps, escort services, massage parlors or bath houses engage in escalating behavior that reveals the “tell-tale signs of addiction,” he told the Register. “They seek out something that is more intense or risky to get the same experience.”

Sex addiction or hypersexual disorder is described as the “compulsive need for instant gratification of sexual urges” (Carnes, 2001). While diagnostic criteria have been proposed to formally identify this pattern of behavior, the disease has not yet been included in the professional handbook used by experts, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Patterns of Behavior

Nevertheless, Catholic health-care providers and counselors who have worked with priests struggling with sexual misconduct are familiar with a predictable pattern of behavior that may begin with the viewing of graphic still photos, then shift to adult videos, followed by online chat rooms. 

“They may visit a hook-up site to see what it’s like, but not to meet anybody,” explained Father Kilcawley. Then, at some point, they “cross the invisible line and meet somebody.”

A spouse involved in the same kind of addictive sexual behavior may not get help until he or she is discovered and their marriage is threatened, but single people, including priests, can face equally devastating consequences. 

“A priest may be discovered looking at porn on his office computer, or the diocesan IT department finds it. Or he ends up having an affair or an emotional affair, and it gets reported,” said Father Kilcawley.

Some priests take the fateful step of reporting their misconduct to superiors. And Father Kilcawley, a certified “pastoral sexual-addiction practitioner,” strongly encourages this course of action.

“My prayer is always that if a priest struggles with solitary sins and he discloses it, we can give him help that arrests the condition and avoids greater scandal down the road,” he said. 

He further recommended individual counseling combined with 12-step fellowship meetings organized for priests and seminarians, and he said he had witnessed men come back from the brink of despair to experience the joy of deep spiritual healing in God’s mercy. 

Now, experts predict the recent headlines will lead many compromised clergy to quickly delete hook-up apps from their smartphones. The more important question is whether they will seek help that is more than a quick fix.

That decision is further complicated by very real fears of permanent removal from ministry.

Ideally, the tone and policies set by an individual bishop will encourage priests to step forward. But even if the misconduct comes to light in the glare of public exposure, Shannon Mullen urged bishops to be spiritual fathers “who invite priests into conversation about their history, with the expectation that they need to begin professional care.” 

“A bishop should say, ‘I want you to get help. I need to know you are attending your therapy sessions and there is a treatment plan.’ He should have a list of competent Catholic clinicians. There should be the expectation of regular updates, showing that the diocese doesn’t ignore problems: We face them, and we get well,” she added.

Some priests may reject any need for treatment or oversight. In any case, a bishop may be forced to take more decisive action. 

‘Canonical Delict’

Canon law does not explicitly bar priests from using hook-up apps. But canonists told the Register that the jurisprudence is evolving and could be interpreted to support or even require the removal of a priest who routinely engages in such practices.

“Based on my understanding of these hook-up apps, there is no question that a priest who downloads, signs up and routinely participates is guilty of canonical delict,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, citing Canons 1395 and 1399.

“The bishop should warn him that he is in violation of canon law and should begin the process of penalties, should he refuse to end it,” added Father Pietrzyk, who teaches canon law at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

He noted that new penal law will be issued Dec. 8. It will provide “a wider variety of punishments a judge can inflict, including limitations on ministry; it is prospective only,” he said.

Going forward, the canonist expects that dioceses will be drafting particular law stating that “any involvement with this kind of social-media app will be a canonical crime,” an approach he endorses. 

Updated Church law will give bishops an additional tool to address the emerging face of clergy sexual misconduct. But it remains their responsibility to act as faithful, compassionate spiritual fathers. 

Father Fox urged bishops to do more to equip their priests to handle the temptations posed by online apps and give spiritual, moral and practical help to those who stumble. 

“This discussion is only happening in places” where a priest has been caught, he said, suggesting that the recent revelations had ambushed many Church leaders.  

“Jesus chose men who were sinful, and the attitude of the bishops is, ‘I have to put up with a certain amount of behavior as a recognition of the sinful nature of humanity.’ But they should be warning and admonishing priests,” he said, and decisively intervene when necessary. 

“Not every infringement of the law should end in dismissal from the clerical state,” Father Fox said. But it should result in a “corrective response from the bishop that deplores this kind of behavior. To me, that is more to the point.”