Newark archdiocese to investigate app use allegations

News: Archdiocese of Newark

The Archdiocese of Newark says it will investigate the possibility of clerical sexual misconduct, in response to questions from The Pillar about the use of location-based hookup apps at several parish rectories in the archdiocese.

While a spokesperson told The Pillar it is “not acceptable” to use apps “inconsistent with Church teaching,” the archdiocese has also expressed concerns about the “morally suspect” collection of app signal data.

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“The inappropriate use of any app or communication tool would pose a concern in any circumstance and for any community. Although the use of such an app, and its use in a specific location, does not provide direct evidence of any specific activity, the Archdiocese of Newark takes seriously all complaints of misconduct or abuse by members of the clergy, religious, lay staff and volunteers of the Archdiocese,” Maria Margiotta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, told The Pillar on Friday. 

“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. Similarly, it is inappropriate for anyone to use an app or website in a way that is inconsistent with Church teachings,” Margiotta added. 

The Pillar contacted the Newark archdiocese after a review of commercially available app signal data showed patterns of location-based hookup app use at more than 10 archdiocesan rectories and clerical residences during 2018, 2019, and 2020. There are 212 parishes in the Newark archdiocese.

The analysis of commercially available signal data obtained by The Pillar, which was legally obtained and whose authenticity The Pillar confirmed, shows evidence that both homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps were used in parish rectories or other clerical residences with a frequency suggesting, in several cases, residence in those locations. 

While it does not identify the names, addresses, or telephone numbers of particular users, data collected, commodified, and sold by hookup apps with the consent of users can include the usage location of particular devices at particular times. 

Without compelling public interest regarding individual priests serving in archdiocesan ministries, The Pillar did not undertake to de-anonymize data about parish rectory app usage.

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The Pillar initially contacted the Newark archdiocese July 8, requesting an off-the-record meeting with Cardinal Joseph Tobin to discuss evidence of sexual activity on the part of clerics in the archdiocese, which could bear upon safe environment policies in the Archdiocese of Newark.

The archdiocese requested that The Pillar submit written questions and relevant information in writing to the archdiocesan communications office. Given the sensitive nature of the information, The Pillar asked twice more for an in-person meeting at which to present information directly to Cardinal Tobin, in order to brief him fully and allow him to ask questions in an off-the-record setting several days ahead of any reporting on the matter by The Pillar.

Those requests were not accepted, and The Pillar submitted summary information and written questions to the Newark archdiocese on July 21. 

On July 23, Margiotta told The Pillar that “although the use of such an app does not provide proof of any specific activity or misconduct, the misuse of any app or website in an ecclesiastical residence, whether by clergy or a layperson, would pose a concern.”

At the same time, Margiotta requested additional information, so that the archdiocese can “investigate and take appropriate action.”

“We are committed to protecting the faithful, and when we learn of any immoral behavior or misconduct, we take appropriate measures to address concerns and reinforce this commitment.” 

Location-based hookup apps permit users to contact other users in geographic proximity to them, to exchange messages and pictures, and often to arrange sexual encounters. 

Use of such apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”

Amid the sexual abuse crisis of 2018, Church leaders engaged in fierce discussion about the impact of violations of clerical chastity on the Church’s life and culture. 

Some Catholics noted the work of the now-deceased psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and advocate for the victims of clerical sexual abuse, who argued that even consensual sexual activity by and among celibate clerics can foster a culture of both tolerance and secrecy, which enables sexual manipulation, coercion, and abuse.

Sipe, who warned Church leaders about the now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick, cautioned that a failure to address that issue would compound problems in the Church’s response to sexual abuse. 

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Hookup apps are ordinarily used for encounters involving adults. But priests in the United States, as well as the U.K., Ireland, and Italy, have been arrested for sexual contact with minors established through both homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps. 

One such priest, Fr. Robert McWilliams of Cleveland, pled guilty last week to federal charges of sex trafficking, child pornography, and sexual exploitation of minors. McWilliams used location-based hookup apps to arrange commercial sex with a minor, 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.

Experts warn that sexual engagement with minors can take place through hookup apps even unwittingly. Charges were last year dropped against a South Carolina priest after a sheriff’s department investigation determined that although Fr. Raymond Flores had traded explicit photos with a minor, he did so under the sincere impression that the individual was 18 years old. 

Experts have warned that hook-up apps pose an ongoing risk of child exploitation because of the ease with which age verification checks can be evaded, and called on industry leaders and legislators to tighten access to the platforms. 

Some Church leaders have called in recent months for a focus on technology accountability as part of the Church’s response to recent sexual abuse crises.

While the Newark archdiocesan Code of Conduct and Supplemental Norms for Clergy address some related issues, they do not specifically reference the use of computers, mobile devices, social media, or apps aimed at facilitating hook-up encounters. 

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While Church leaders have made clergy discipline reform efforts on several fronts, they have not discussed technology accountability at length, despite indications the scope of the issue could be considerable.

The Pillar assessed app signal data to consider the possible extent of such a problem, and included the Archdiocese of Newark in its assessment because of its prominence in the McCarrick scandal, which has raised questions about the long-term local impact of McCarrick’s years at the helm of the archdiocese.    

Newark archbishop Cardinal Joseph Tobin pledged after the McCarrick scandal to consider whether reform efforts are needed in the archdiocese; after ordering a review of seminary culture and implementing other measures, he is largely regarded to have taken that pledge seriously.

In 2018, as the McCarrick scandal garnered international attention, Tobin also ordered a review of the former archbishop’s activities and influence in the archdiocese, including a review of McCarrick’s alleged financial improprieties. Tobin has said he will make information from that report available after an ongoing attorney general’s investigation in New Jersey has concluded.

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In its written responses to The Pillar on Friday, the Newark archdiocese raised privacy concerns about the collection and commoditization of app signal data, saying the “collection, analysis, and publication of data related to the misuse of these apps also poses a concern” for the archdiocese.

In fact, recent reporting from The Pillar based upon analysis of app signal data has spurred considerable discussion about privacy. While app users are required to consent to the commoditization and commercialization of personal data in exchange for app use, some commentators say that consent doesn’t mitigate the right to privacy. 

The use of app signal data and similar technology in reporting is not unprecedented.

A February report from the New York Times, in which reporters used app signal data to identify and name a participant in the January U.S. Capitol incursion, even after he denied participation, did not prompt similar reaction. While the New York Times said the identified participant consented to be quoted, it did not define the conditions under which that consent was elicited.

For its part, the Newark archdiocese said that “the potential to harm the reputations of individuals who may not have engaged in misconduct of any kind further underscores the controversial and morally suspect collection of such data.”