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Lay group's use of data to root out clergy abuse draws concern

Efforts to expose individual clerical breaches of celibacy can overlook 'big picture' of systemic issues, researchers say
A person uses a smartphone in this illustration photo

A person uses a smartphone in this illustration photo. (Photo: Canva)

Published: March 22, 2023 05:20 AM GMT

A private, lay-led effort to root out clergy sexual misconduct in the Catholic Church by exposing their use of dating apps has raised concerns such methods may actually make it more difficult for the church to help clergy struggling with chaste celibacy and prevent them from damaging others through their sexual misconduct.

The nonprofit Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal recently claimed it has been legally purchasing publicly available data to assess the use of "hookup apps" by seminarians and clergy, then sharing its findings with several rectors and bishops.

Jayd Henricks, identifying himself as CLCR's president, confirmed the initiative in a March 8 essay in the journal First Things, ahead of a March 9 Washington Post article bringing the project to light.

Henricks -- who initially said he "might consider" an interview with OSV News but then declined -- wrote in his essay that CLCR had bought the data "in the ordinary way," analyzed it and found that "heterosexual and homosexual hookup apps were used by some seminarians and some priests in some places, and with volumes and patterns suggesting those were not isolated moral lapses by individuals."

He stressed that CLCR -- which Henricks said was formed by "a group of Catholics" in response to the sex abuse scandals involving former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick -- operated "within the boundaries of the law" and had "hoped to keep this work private, so as to be able to have honest and frank conversations with Church leaders" while protecting "the privacy of those affected."

Henricks wrote that "trafficking in obscene content, and even criminal content, is a risk to the Church and her children, as it is to the rest of society," and that "as repeated scandals have shown, the danger is more acute because of the Church's privileged position as the guardian of souls and the door of salvation."

"When we learned legal ways to understand risks to the health of the Church beset by technology -- including the use of hookup apps by clerics -- we studied that," wrote Henricks. "And we shared what we learned directly with bishops -- without setting any expectations, we made information available to the leaders of the Church."

But the efforts of CLCR -- which provides no staff listing on its website, and only a Casper, Wyoming-based post office box as an address -- are likely to foster "a culture of threat and suspicion" among seminarians and clergy, Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at St. John's University School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, told OSV News.

"This isn't going to help a man develop a healthy sexual identity as a celibate priest; this is not, to my mind, the most effective way to do it," said Zsupan-Jerome. "I grew up in Hungary, and this idea of reporting upon others and turning in names was (part of) the context of communism in my parents' and grandparents' generation. And nothing good came of that."

Steven P. Millies, associate professor of public theology and director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, told OSV News CLCR's undertaking risked having "chilling effects."

"This sense of surveillance, and the punishment that can follow from that, can only lead to people silencing themselves," said Millies. "And silencing themselves of course can only isolate people … with issues that trouble them. Those tensions and frustration can lead to people acting to harm others and themselves."

Efforts to expose individual clerical breaches of celibacy can overlook "the big picture" of systemic issues, leaving "ordinary people … (to) suffer as a result, along with the church as a whole," said Stephen de Weger, a researcher on clerical sexual misconduct who is on the faculty of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

De Weger told OSV News that he "balked" at such "Big Brother type activities and methods of seeking out offenders."

At the same time, de Weger said he "applauded and rejoiced" at authentic efforts to address what he called "normalization" of sexual misconduct among clergy, which, among other things, can jeopardize the church's safe environment commitments.

When the sexual misconduct of clergy goes unaddressed, de Weger explained, clergy engaging in adult sexual activity and clergy engaging in the sexual abuse of minors can find themselves in a "blackmail" standoff with each other -- leaving the former too scared to report on the latter, for fear of being discovered themselves.

In "the underbelly of sexual activity by clergy, they know about each other and how they have to protect each other," said de Weger. "If you (the priest) want to expose child abuse, but you have a bit of a history of hooking up with people on Grindr, your history will be exposed" if you try to report on the person who is sexually abusing a child.

"That broader context is essential," he said.

However, de Weger said he "disagreed with the focus on gay clergy" apparently taken by CLCR, which, according to reports reviewed by The Washington Post, had obtained most of its data from Grindr, billed on that company's website as "the world's largest social networking app for LGBTQ people."

Such a focus overlooks the vulnerability of women to sexual abuse by clergy. A 2009 study conducted by the late Diana Garland at Baylor University's School of Social Work, found "one in 33 women in congregations has been the object of a sexual advance by a religious leader."

Henricks said in his essay that CLCR was not targeting homosexual clergy, but rather the use of apps "designed specifically for casual, anonymous sexual encounters" and promoting "behavior that harms everyone involved."

From a clinical perspective, the ability of CLCR's "tracing activity" to curb clerical sexual misconduct depends on a number of possible reasons for such behavior, said de Weger.

"Are we dealing with occasional lapses, or deeply habitual ones; beliefs by clergy that sexual activity is OK; sex addiction?" he asked. "Is it an expression of power hunger, of the need to dominate others, of unresolved childhood parental issues, of the deep anger and frustration that comes from having to be subservient to one's superior?"

Millies noted that CLCR's project risked distorting the Second Vatican Council's intentions for the role of the laity as active participants in church life while exacerbating existing divisions in the church over the handling of key issues.

"There's a healthy sense about being a broad vertical and horizontal participation in the overall governance of the church," he said. "This is turning that theology upside down to scatter people, and to use the authority that lay people should have and turn it into a kind of coercive power."

Zsupan-Jerome pointed to canon law 277, which names the diocesan bishop as the one "competent to establish specific norms concerning" clerical celibacy and "to pass judgment in particular cases" in its observance.

"It's really the bishop's role to make decisions and create avenues (in this regard)," she said. "To what extent at all is this organization (CLCR) at a bishop's request? … If it is not something initiated by the bishops or at their request -- if it is in any way overstepping the bishop's right -- I wonder about its legitimacy."

OSV News was advised by the publisher of the Official Catholic Directory that CLCR is not listed in its files. CLCR's publicly available tax records list its principal board members as Mark Bauman and Tim Reichert of Denver and John Martin of Casper, Wyoming. The Washington Post identified all three as philanthropists, with ties to independent Catholic ministries within the Archdiocese of Denver, which declined to provide comment on CLCR to OSV News.

The director of communications and the chancellor for the Diocese of Cheyenne, which OSV News also contacted based on CLCR's mailing address, said they were unfamiliar with the organization.

OSV News did not receive a response from Martin or Reichert requesting comment. Blake Brouillette, managing director of Christ in the City -- of which Bauman is president -- said Henricks "is the one taking all inquiries" regarding CLCR.

Zsupan-Jerome said that while downloading and using dating apps is "a public act in some part," the church's goal in ensuring clerical chastity and celibacy should encourage "healthy formation to a well-integrated sexuality," particularly during seminarian formation.

"Can we create spaces in which we're open and supportive to that tender process of discernment and decision, where if there is any sort of question (about celibacy), we can then allow this person with dignity to part ways and pursue another life?" she said.

"Suspicion and non-transparency," she added, preclude that possibility.

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