A deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York has been 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.
Rogelio Vega, 52, was sentenced March 15, two years after he was arrested in an NYPD sting operation using Grindr.
Vega, who previously served in the Brooklyn diocese’s parish of St. Sebastian, Woodside, pled guilty last September to three counts of “enticing a minor” to engage in sexual acts with him.
Reading the sentence in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday, the judge noted the “especially complex” nature of the case, but said that deterring the sexual exploitation of minors is “one of the most important, most essential tasks of the criminal justice system.”
Vega was arrested in January 2021, after he made contact with an NYPD detective posing as a teenager on Grindr, a location-based app designed to facilitate anonymous sexual encounters between men. He was immediately removed from ministry by the diocese.
The deacon sent a series of graphic and obscene messages and pictures of himself to the detective, whom he believed to be a 14-year-old boy, before arranging to meet in Queens, where he was arrested.
Subsequent searches of Vega’s phone allowed police to identify three underage boys whom Vega had enticed into numerous sexual acts.
Vega’s lawyer told the court that the Vega himself had been a victim of sexual abuse and that rather than sexually abusing his victims “he wishes that he instead spread the gospel to them, is what he said to me.”
The judge in the case highlighted the risks to minors posed by apps like Grindr, noting that one of Vega’s victims, whom he also contacted through Grindr, had clearly identified himself as being 15 years old.
“What obligation do they [the app companies] have to police this?” Judge Eric Komitee said. “If we’re talking broadly here about deterrence, that question seems to me to leap off the page.”
The Grindr app says it does not permit minors to use the platform, and it requires users to input a date of birth while creating a profile. But, beyond a user-supplied date of birth, the app does not require users to prove they are over 18.
In 2021, Dani Pinter, senior legal counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told The Pillar that most companies which own dating and hookup apps “are not doing anything for age verification.”
While technology exists to verify the ages of app users easily, most hookup apps “don't ask for ID for any of the dating apps. I mean, you just check a box or enter a birth date, which you can fake. They don't check,” Pinter said.
“The tech industry writ large, including apps and social media platforms, operate on volume and definitely put profits over people,” she said, but because of loose federal regulations, “they’re not even worried about the consequences.”
The risks of location-based hookup apps being used to facilitate the abuse of minors has been flagged by several academic studies.
In a 2018 Northwestern University study of 14-17 year old males who identify as gay or bisexual, more than half of participants said they used hookup apps for the purposes of meeting partners. Nearly 70% of adolescent participants who said they used such apps did so in order to “meet men in person for sex,” the study concluded.
Fifty-one percent of the adolescent participants endorsed using Grindr, and overall, more than a quarter of the study’s adolescent participants said they had had sex with a partner they met through an app.
In 2021, Jack Turban, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, co-published a paper which argued that location-based hookup apps “facilitate age-discordant sexual relationships between adolescent and adult partners,” which can be harmful to minors.
“Sex with older adults can...lead to other power dynamics that increase the possibility of physical harm and a pressure to conceal that harm.” Turban estimated that about 25% of gay and bisexual adolescent males use location based hookup apps like Grindr. Those apps, Turban said, create “an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids.”
The risk of clerics using apps such as Grindr to facilitate sexual contact with minors, sometimes inadvertently, has been repeatedly raised by a number of cases in recent years.
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 2022, a priest in the Diocese of Lansing had his faculties removed after a report that he engaged in sexual activity with a 16-year-old boy whom he met on the hookup app Grindr.
In an especially notorious case, in 2022, Fr. Robert McWilliams of Cleveland died by suicide in prison, soon after he was handed a life sentence after being convicted on 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.
Priests using Grindr have found themselves in other legal trouble as well.
A Pennsylvania priest was arrested in 2019 for stealing nearly $100,000 from his parish, some of which was sent to men he met on Grindr.
The use of location-based hookup apps has been documented even among senior-ranking clerics.
After 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.
And The Pillar also reported that month evidence that during a period of 26 weeks in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted serially occurring hookup or dating app data signals from secured areas and buildings of the Vatican ordinarily inaccessible to tourists and pilgrims.
In response to public attention on hookup app use among clergy, some Church leaders have called for a focus on technology accountability as part of the Church’s response to recent sexual abuse crises.
In May 2022, the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, promulgated a policy which prohibited clerics from the use of hookup apps.
But while some dioceses have issued new norms and guidelines for clergy to combat the risks posed by hook-up app technology, engagement with the subject continues to spark controversy.
Last week, in an essay on the website of First Things magazine, the president of a non-profit called Catholic Laity Clergy for Renewal said his organization had used data analytics to examine patterns in Church life across a range of subjects, including location-based hook-up apps.
“We shared what we learned directly with bishops—without setting any expectations, we made information available to the leaders of the Church,” said CLCR president Jayd Hendricks, a former USCCB official.
“Ignoring the importance and reality of human sexuality and its expression isn’t healthy, and pretending problems aren’t there only stores up worse trouble for everyone, as we have all too painfully learned,” said Hendricks. “It’s not about straight or gay priests… it’s about behavior that harms everyone involved, at some level and in some way, and is a witness against the ministry of the Church.”
Hendricks’ essay was followed by a report in the Washington Post which was broadly critical of CLCR’s work, and claimed that “experts disagree” on whether priests “having a hookup app on [their] phone, engaging in sexual talk on an app or watching people have sex at a bathhouse,” violates the obligation of clerical continence.
The Diocese of Brooklyn has not issued a statement on Vega’s sentencing.