Ohio priest’s plea raises tech accountability concerns

News: Clerical sexual abuse

An Ohio priest will plead guilty to federal child pornography and child exploitation charges, his attorney said in a court filing last week. The priest was arrested after using hookup apps and social media to meet and pay a male minor victim for sex, and to acquire pornographic selfies from minors through manipulation and extortion. 

The priest’s crimes raise concerns about the digital front of the Church’s child protection efforts, and the emerging challenge of ensuring technology accountability among clerics and other Church leaders.

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Fr. Robert McWilliams, 40, was arrested in December 2019 from the Strongsville, Ohio, parish where he had been a parochial vicar since his 2017 ordination. At the time of his arrest, police found child pornography on his computer, cell phone, and iPad.

The priest allegedly used social media and location-based hookup apps to meet and coerce young male victims.

In some cases, McWilliams allegedly pretended to be a female on social media, contacted underage males he knew from parish ministry, and enticed them to send him sexually explicit photographs and videos.

After he received pictures and video, he allegedly blackmailed his victims — threatening to send the pornography to family and friends if his victims did not send him more when he requested it.

McWilliams also allegedly used the location-based gay hookup app Grindr to meet an underage male, in order to pay him for sex on several occasions. 

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The priest was indicted on eight federal counts in July 2020, including charges of child sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child pornography distribution. It is not yet clear if he will plead guilty to all charges, or whether he has completed a plea arrangement with prosecutors.

McWilliams, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, is almost certain to be laicized; the allegations against him constitute several canonical crimes. His case points to the challenge facing Church leaders to ensure technology accountability among clerics, and especially to prevent the possibility of predatory online behavior by clerics and others in professional ministry.

A spokesman for the Cleveland diocese told The Pillar last week that “since 2016, the Diocese of Cleveland has published Standards of Conduct for Ministry. This document includes a section on the Use of Social Media and all Forms of Electronic Communication with the admonition ‘not to develop personal relationships with those whom they serve, especially minors.’”

Deacon Bernard Nojadera, who directs the USCCB’s office of child and youth protection, told The Pillar Tuesday that the “digital world” is the “new frontier” for child safety protection. 

Nojadera said that social media and location-based hookup apps present unique dangers from would-be abusers, and unique challenges for those who aim to protect minors. 

“We have seen evidence and studies that those who would perpetrate these types of sins and crimes, if they’re not able to do it in Church settings, they’re going to go to the next means of meeting folks — and that’s through the internet, through apps, and digital platforms for social media.”

“In reality, when you’re on the internet, there are no boundaries.”

“And in the digital world, it’s very easy to end up with two personalities, if you will. You could be a completely different individual on the internet...because who knows what’s going on in the confines of your room,” Nojadera said.

Nojadera urged that boundaries for all online engagement be clearly established in diocesan codes of conduct, and that diocesan, parish, and school networks be monitored carefully to ensure that employees or clerics are not behaving inappropriately from Church-owned devices.

Among McWilliams’ alleged crimes is the use of a location-based hookup app, Grindr, to arrange meetings with a minor whom he paid for sex. The priest is not the only cleric in recent years to have used a location-based hookup app for similar purposes.

In Italy, the United States, the U.K. and Ireland, at least seven priests and deacons in recent years have been arrested or faced charges after using hookup apps to meet or solicit minors for sex, solicit child pornography selfies from minors, or blackmail and extort minors who provided child pornography.

In addition to priests and deacons committing crimes against minors using hookup ups, a Pennsylvania priest was criminally charged after he was found to have stolen almost $100,000 from the parish where he was assigned as pastor. The priest gave at least some of the money to men he met on Grindr, according to media reports, and may have used some to help fund the purchase of a vacation home.

Pope Francis warned bishops last month to take more seriously the application of penal law in the Church, saying their failure to apply penalties for immoral behavior could lead to a pattern of escalating serious crimes.

“In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions. This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies,” Pope Francis wrote in June. 

“This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful. For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties. Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully,” the pope added. 

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Pope Francis’ recent changes to the Church’s penal law include increased penalties for both laity and clerics who induce minors to take pornographic images of themselves or participate in other production of pornography.

But in light of the pope’s remarks on using penal law to prevent escalating problems, some experts on child protection in the Catholic Church have said clerics should be prohibited from downloading location-based hook apps under any circumstances.

Others have raised concerns about the rights of individual clerics.

Nojadera said he ‘has been in conversations where people are asking: ‘at what point are we infringing on an individual’s rights or such to [prohibit] particular apps?’”

But the deacon said “we’ve got to put that argument up against the whole value system that we have as a Church, and in particular, those who take the sacrament of Holy Orders, that they should be living their lives in a manner that is wholly healthy and pleasing to God. And clearly having this type of technology to be used in that type of manner is not necessarily healthy, holy, or pleasing to God.”

Fr. John Paul Kimes, JCD, a former official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who now teaches canon law at Notre Dame Law School, told The Pillar that a diocesan bishop has the authority to prohibit the use of hookup apps by clerics through an act of diocesan legislation.

“It is very reasonable for bishops to include prohibitions against such hookup apps in particular law,” Kimes told The Pillar, especially in light of provisions of canon law that permit diocesan bishops to ensure that clerics maintain the obligation to observe “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Given the ease of downloading and using a variety of apps to violate the sixth commandment, it would seem that crafting specific norms regarding the use of social media, in general, and specifically the use of social media apps the main purpose of which is to violate the sixth commandment,” Kimes added.

The Pillar asked the Cleveland diocese whether it has considered updating its policies to prohibit clerics from any use of location-based hookup apps; but the diocese had not yet responded by press time.

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For his part, Nojadera said the Church’s approach should also include taking seriously the health, spiritual life, and living situation of priests and deacons. He said priests who abuse pornography — and escalate from that abuse into immoral or criminal sexual activity — would benefit from fraternity and accountability with their brother priests before they get to that point.

“Isolation, poor health, perhaps the use of substances to self-medicate loneliness, come into play. If there's no sense of community and support, no camaraderie or brotherhood, and then to top that — if we have someone who is not necessarily maintaining at least a minimal type of prayer life, spiritual life... There’s loneliness, there’s depression, so they go online for pornography, there’s that particular high, but then once it's done and over with that sense of disgust and disappointment, the cycle just then repeats.”

“And it gets riskier,” he said.

The deacon urged priests to invite for spiritual and social fraternity those clerics who seem to be struggling, and to help each other address issues in a spiritually healthy, emotionally healthy, and safe environment.

“A lot of times what happens with the use of pornography and getting online and doing all this, there's something missing.” 

“And then with apps and things like that, they’re online and striking up a conversation because they could be, you know, whomever they want to be, whatever persona, whatever character they want to be.”

Nojadera told The Pillar that changes to predatory behavior require new approaches to child protection, both for law enforcement and for the Church.

“And reality is that if the Church does not start to address these [issues], we’re going to be behind and playing catch up,” Nojadera said.

“Even cyber law is still playing catch-up because the innovation and the adaptation to the digital reality is exponential, and we’re not keeping up with a lot of these advances.”