The prospect of private parties using national security-style surveillance technology to track the movements and activities of bishops, priests, and other Church personnel is raising concerns about civil liberties, privacy rights and what means are ethical to use in Church reform efforts.
The issue was first raised in 2018, when a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency.
This party claimed to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular “hook-up” apps, such as Grindr and Tinder, and to pinpoint their locations using the internet addresses of their computers or mobile devices.
The proposal was to provide this information privately to Church officials in the hopes that they would discipline or remove those found to be using these technologies to violate their clerical vows and possibly bring scandal to the Church.
CNA and others at the time declined this party’s offer, but there are reports this week that information targeting allegedly active homosexual priests may become public.
The US government’s widespread use of surveillance technology to monitor individuals has been widely known since the 2013 revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
And while there are reports of private corporations using similar techniques to keep track of employees, this is thought to be the first proposal to apply such measures in the Church.
“Basically, this technology is capable of pinpointing individuals who have downloaded a ‘gay app,’ finding out how much they are using it, and then figuring out, thanks to the geolocation technology, if they live at a seminary, or work at a parish or a major Catholic organization,” said one Catholic specialist on digital technology and data gathering, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A Catholic tech expert who also spoke to CNA said the technology is so precise that it can provide the names and addresses of the targeted clergy and also tell what other app users he might spend time with and where their meetings take place.
The data gathered can tell, the data specialist told CNA, “what places they frequent, such as, let’s say, a really shady part of town not consistent with a priestly life.”
CNA also spoke with some Catholics who were originally approached in 2018.
Like CNA, they were offered specific names of high-profile Catholic personalities as “proof” that the data had been gathered and could prove scandalous.
The party presenting the data claimed to have the best interest of the Church at heart in offering the data to Catholics. He voiced fears that such information could wind up in “the wrong hands,” and be used to blackmail Church officials or otherwise hurt the Church.
CNA spoke to a moral theologian familiar with the moral challenges posed by emerging technologies. He acknowledged that giving the data to faithful concerned Catholics might enable them to urge bishops to “do something about the gravely sinful and potentially scandalous behavior of some of their priests or seminarians.”
But, he added, “what happens if those bishops don’t do anything, or even worse, what if they let the individuals in question know they are being tracked and just simply let them take digital counter-measures,” such as using disposable mobile devices that are harder to track.
He and others who spoke to CNA raised the concern that this technology could be “weaponized” against bishops and priests, with the tactics justified in the name of reforming the Church.
Profound moral and legal questions have been raised by government surveillance, which is supposed to be authorized only in cases of clear threats to national security and carried out under strict supervision by government courts.
“Since this information already exists, it is clearly preferable that it is in Catholic hands, assuming that they are motivated by a profound spirit of charity and concern for the wellbeing of the Church,” said the moral theologian, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“The big question is if this information should be available at all, considering that it is hard to make the case that it was acquired in a completely legal and moral manner.”