In a strange and incredibly controversial development — one commented on with relish by many secular news organizations — a Catholic social media platform found a way to uncover a priest’s sins because of an app he used on his phone, and chose to reveal them.

The reactions to this public tarring and feathering of a cleric have been diverse. The newsletter has justified its inquisitorial approach by talking about the perfect continence expected of a man who has a promise of celibacy.

One moral theologian the Pillar cited in its initial bombshell post said, “Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity.”

The theological expert then went on to reference his own anecdotal experience forming priests saying that “when it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence,” that can become “only a step away from sexual predation.’” 

I would have liked those behind the investigation to ask the moral theologian about a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically, the part that talks about “Offenses Against Truth.” The following can be found in section 2477:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;; of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

I am not a moral theologian, but I consider the implication that a priest who sins against the flesh automatically should be thought “only a step away from sexual predation” as a case of rash judgment. I am not sure what justification the moral theologian has for predicting that incontinence ipso facto is a warning sign of predatory sexual behavior. Adultery is a terrible sin; there is no data to suggest that most adulterers move on to sexual predation.

The app signaled that a subject could have been offered the opportunity of engaging in immoral sexual activity and that he was physically in a certain places propitious to a lifestyle that was contrary to the celibate life. It is not illogical to assume what the newsletter implies, that he was engaged in illicit sexual activity, but is it necessarily conclusive?

I don’t think that the report was necessarily “contrary” to the truth, or calumnious, but I am concerned about its relationship to the sin of detraction. What was the “objectively valid reason” to disclose the faults and failing of the priest to the wide world?

The implied argument of the journalists involved is that it was dangerous to the Church and to possible victims of sexual abuse to allow a man who indulged in the activity of using the app to continue in his office. But was it necessary to publish the circumstantial evidence of “illicit sexual activity” without certainty? Couldn’t someone be in a place and not necessarily engage in what is common there?

There are also worrisome reports of “ultimatums” and negotiation about the matter. But was the threat of exposure the only way to proceed? The threat obviously worked, in that the priest’s resignation was accepted. But was it necessary to go into the details of what the spying on the priest had discovered?

I recently had the misfortune of reading some of James Ellroy’s Widespread Panic, which is about a LA detective who becomes a tabloid reporter in the Fifties. I really believe that, whatever their intentions and in spite of their justification, the persons behind this exposé of a cleric descended to tabloid-type journalism.

There is also an ethical issue involved in the harvesting of the anonymous data sold from commercial apps and then “de-anonymizing” to identify a particular person. The people behind the app, no doubt concerned about how easy it was to discover a name in supposedly anonymous raw data they sell, claim that it was “technically infeasible” that the folks responsible would be able to do. Do we have a right to get information any way possible?  The famous dictum, “All the news that’s fit to print,” has within its clichéd heart a concern for a higher purpose of information gathering.

Ellroy’s sleazy Freddy Otash (a fictionalized version of a real person—I guess the dead can’t sue for slander) calls himself a Pervdog. The tabloid blackmailer-“investigator” in Ellroy’s characteristic patois says of his colleagues, “We’re nativistically nocturnal. Our genus genuflects at moon fall and comes alive at nite. We seek succor in the scent of secret lives, half hidden. We peep, prowl, break, enter, SEEK." Doesn’t that sound what was done here to a cleric?

We cannot defend a lifestyle at odds with Christian morality by anybody, and certainly, there should be a higher standard applied to a priest. He is human, of course, but also a symbol. But was it necessary to “out” the man? This seems to be flexing of journalistic power, not “investigative journalism at the service of the Church.”  

The story certainly has put the newsletter on the map. But it could have been handled without a scandal that is damaging not just to one life but to a community.

A saint once commented on the issue of discretion and the behavior of Noah’s sons when they found their father drunk and in a scandalous way. One brother, Ham, calls attention to the spectacle of his father, who has just discovered the potency of fermented grapes and lies naked in his tent. Shem and Japheth, his brothers, walk backwards to cover the nakedness of their father. When Noah awakes, he is grateful for the discretion of the two but curses the descendants of other.

Maybe these cutting edge investigators should read Genesis 9:20-27. I see how Ham looks more like a “valiant” journalist, “speaking the truth to power after discovering dirty laundry,”  but Shem and Japheth were certainly nobler.