The Bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, issued on Friday a ban on the use of so-called hookup apps for all diocesan clergy.
Bishop Robert McManus promulgated the new diocesan penal law March 24, warning that use of hookup app technology will lead to sanctions for priests and deacons in the Massachusetts diocese.
“The new law reminds the clerics to cultivate and preserve the virtue of chastity as well as the promise of celibacy for priests and single or widowed deacons,” the diocese announced in a statement Friday.
“This particular law specifically references digital solicitation, grooming, pornography and/or sharing of such material on social media as ways of violating their lifelong commitment to the observance of chaste celibacy.”
The diocese said the new law, which invoked the existing universal law of the Church related to the clerical obligation to “behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful,” creates the legal option for the bishop to “punish with a just penalty according to the gravity of the offense” any clergy incardinated in the diocese or otherwise present in the diocese who uses such apps.
The law creates two specific offenses which can be committed by clerics.
The first is using or creating accounts - for any purpose - on a digital platform “specifically designed to facilitate violations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with an adult.”
The second is using any digital platform or social network, even not specifically a hookup app, for “establishing contact for the purpose of violating the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with an adult.”
The Worcester law follows a similar policy issued in the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, in May 2022.
Pope Francis has in recent years urged bishop to create and apply local penal laws for clergy aimed at addressing moral issues.
In 2021, the pope wrote that the failure of bishops to create and apply penal law for clerics in their dioceses “risks leading to living with behaviors contrary to the discipline of morals, whose remedy is not only exhortations or suggestions.”
“The negligence of a [bishop] in having recourse to the penal system makes it clear that he does not fulfill his function correctly and faithfully, as I have expressly warned in recent documents,” the pope wrote.
On Saturday, Francis reissued the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, his 2019 motu proprio criminalizing sexual contact between clerics and “vulnerable” adults, defined by Francis as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal freedom which in fact, even occasionally, limits his or her ability to understand or want or in any case to resist the offense.”
The category of “vulnerable adult” has been applied in practice to include seminarians, priests in relation to their superiors, Church employees, and lay people under the spiritual care of a cleric.
In 2021, a senior canon lawyer and adjunct secretary to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, told U.S. bishops that diocesan bishops are now expected to convene criminal investigations and prosecutions for various cases of clerical sexual misconduct with adults, which have been usually treated as moral failures, but not canonical crimes.
On Friday, The Worcester diocese said Bishop McManus considered the new law “a pro-active way to remind the clergy of the moral gravity of the issues addressed by this particular law, especially in light of recent news stories from other parts of the country in which priests and deacons were being removed from public ministry due to violations of the sixth commandment.”
Monsignor Jeff Burrill resigned in July 2021 from his position as general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, The Pillar reported evidence that the priest had regularly used the Grindr app while in his conference position, in which Burrill exercised considerable influence over the Church’s response to numerous sexual misconduct scandals.
The use of hookup apps by clerics has come under repeated scrutiny in recent years, both as failures of clerical continence with and among consenting adults, but also because of the risks to minors posed by platforms such as Grindr, an app designed to facilitate anonymous sexual encounters between men.
Apps like Grindr have been repeatedly flagged in academic studies and by child protection authorities like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation as lacking basic age verification checks to prevent minors accessing the platforms.
Grindr is currently being sued by a child sexual abuse survivor who alleges the platform actively attempts “to recruit children to use its product” through marketing and then connects them with adults for sex.
In December 2020, Pope Francis amended the canonical norms on sexual abuse to make it clear that clerics who sexually abuse minors can be canonically prosecuted even when they say they were not aware that a person with whom they had sexual contact was a minor.
Earlier this month, a deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, was sentenced to 16 years in prison after he admitted to prosecutors that he engaged in sexual acts with minors he met on the hookup app Grindr.
In 2019, South Carolina priest Fr. Raymond Flores was arrested after exchanging sexually inappropriate photos with a minor. But because the priest believed the minor was actually 18, he was not charged with a crime.
In an especially notorious case, in 2022, Robert McWilliams, a laicized priest of Cleveland, died by suicide in prison, soon after he was convicted on federal charges of sex trafficking, child pornography, and sexual exploitation of minors, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
McWilliams used location-based hookup apps to arrange commercial sex with minors, and used more traditional forms of social media, on which he posed as a female in order to entice and exploit minor male victims to send him pornographic images.