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Credibility Requires Accountability: Monitoring Priests’ Cellphones

In light of the vocations issue and concerns about privacy, a policy that significantly intrudes on priests’ privacy should be a last resort. However, given the tremendous damage the earlier sex scandals did to the Church’s credibility, as evidenced by declining attendance and financial support, renewed concerns about priestly celibacy may justify such a resort.

New Catholic news website The Pillar has stirred up considerable controversy by reporting on cellphone data suggesting some Catholic priests may have been using hookup sites (both gay and straight). The Pillar’s reporting led to Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill’s resigning from his position as general secretary of the US bishops’ conference, in the wake of allegations that gay hookup app Grindr had been used on his cellphone and that his cellphone had emitted signals from a gay bathhouse in Las Vegas. The Archdiocese of Newark announced that it will investigate similar allegations by The Pillar that “a review of commercially available app signal data showed patterns of location-based hookup app use at more than 10 archdiocesan rectories and clerical residences during 2018, 2019, and 2020.”

The Pillar’s reporting triggered considerable debate about journalistic ethics and data privacy. According to The New York Times, it also “unnerved the leadership of the American Catholic Church” by calling to mind the sex scandals of past decades. Although there have been no allegations of abuse of minors, the allegations suggest continuing failures by priests to comply with their vows of celibacy.

It is well that the Church hierarchy is nervous about the potential fallout of these new scandals. As I discussed in my recent law review article, “Enhanced Accountability: The Catholic Church’s Unfinished Business,” we can think of the Church—in compliance with the Great Commission—as offering people information about how to attain salvation. In economic terms, the Church is marketing a credence good. A credence good is one whose value quality cannot readily be determined by the consumer either before or after consuming the good, such that the consumer must take the good’s value “on faith.”

Credence goods have high purchase costs, but their quality is very costly to determine either pre- or post-purchase, which means that their utility to the consumer cannot be accurately measured. In addition to eternal salvation, examples include medical care (because the typical patient lacks the knowledge to assess the quality of care received) and automobiles (because the average purchaser is not an expert mechanic). Instead of weighing the quality of the good, consumers base their purchase decisions on the reputation and credibility of the credence good’s seller.

Viewing the problem through this economic lens is helpful, because it helps us understand the role of priestly celibacy and why priestly compliance with the vow of celibacy is critical to the Church’s mission. Indeed, the obligation of celibacy is one of the principal ways in which the Catholic Church has sought to validate the quality of its service.

 

The Obligation of Celibacy

Most of the Church’s customers interact with it mainly through their parish priest, making their perception of the Church as a whole largely dependent on their perception of that priest. By precluding faithful priests from having children, celibacy reduces their incentives to transfer Church assets to their heirs, which had been a serious problem before the Church mandated celibacy. In addition, celibacy ensures that the priest’s time, effort, and loyalty are not divided between his duties to the Church and those to his family. Most importantly, however, as Pope Benedict XVI explained, celibacy sends a strong signal that the priest believes in the reality of salvation:

The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forgo bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith that my land is really God—and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven. I bear witness to Jesus Christ, to the Gospel, not only with words, but also with this specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal.

Celibacy is thus a highly credible signal about the priest’s own beliefs, because giving up sex—whether straight or gay—is sufficiently difficult that only those who honestly believe in the prospect of salvation or damnation will do so.

As was the case with the earlier sex scandals, the present scandal suggests that some substantial percentage of Catholic priests have been unfaithful to their obligation of celibacy. Because it can be extremely difficult for lay parishioners to determine whether their local parish priest has breached that duty, moreover, the scandal calls into question the credibility of all priests. The scandal thus strikes at the heart of the Church’s ability to successfully market the credence good at the heart of its mission.

Put another way, by reducing the Church’s credibility and besmirching its reputation, the scandal makes consumers less willing to purchase the Church’s main offering. The Church is thus impaired from carrying out its task of saving souls and, if one believes the Church’s teaching on eternity, at unimaginable cost to the lost.

 

Should the Church Monitor Priests’ Phone Usage?

Although the present scandal does not call into question those of the Church’s reforms directed at protecting minors, it does suggest that there is an ongoing problem with celibacy and, accordingly, a continuing threat to the Church’s credibility.

The Church currently tends to be reactive rather than proactive in dealing with that threat. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s policy on permissible use of computers, tablets, and smartphones provides that:

The archdiocese and [subordinate entities], as applicable, reserve the right to monitor, access, retrieve, read, edit, redact, remove, and/or disclose all content created, sent, received, or stored on archdiocese and/or Location systems, devices, and materials (including connections made and sites visited). The archdiocese also cooperates with law enforcement officials or others, without prior notice. Users can have no reasonable expectation of privacy in use of archdiocesan systems, devices, or materials. The archdiocese reserves these rights with respect to systems, devices, and materials not owned by the archdiocese when they are used under circumstances that implicate the archdiocese.​​

The policy expressly extends to “personal electronic communications devices,” which “are subject to investigation in accordance with the” terms of the policy.

In light of The Pillar’s reporting, however, it is worth considering whether the Church should proactively monitor how priests use their computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Lessons from the Business Sector

In the business sector, human resource experts divide the question of employers monitoring employee devices into four categories:

  1. Employees using employer-owned devices for business purposes.
  2. Employees using employer-owned devices for personal purposes.
  3. Employees using employee-owned devices for business purposes.
  4. Employees using employee-owned devices for personal purposes.

The law governing these situations is in a state of flux and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but we can make some general observations.

In the first category, employees should have very limited expectations of privacy and the employer typically can monitor how those devices are used for emails and internet access.

The second category is rarely a problem, because employers typically prohibit the use of employer-owned devices for personal purposes. Where personal use of employer-owned devices is permitted, employee expectations of privacy may rise but the law nevertheless still generally allows employers to monitor how employees use such devices. As Business.com reports:

According to Michael Trust, human resources leader and certified mediator at Michael Trust Consulting, if an employer provides an employee with a smartphone, any data created, used or accessed on that device is owned by the employer. This can include phone calls, voicemails, text messages, instant messages (e.g., WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger), emails, GPS locations, photos and web browsing history.

“The company owns the phone and the data and can review any and all of it at any time, and for any reason,” Trust told business.com.

The third and fourth categories are the ones to which most human resources and legal attention is devoted. This is so because the vast majority of employees own the smartphones they use for work. (Computers and tablets tend to be employer provided.)

The property rights that the employer enjoys by virtue of owning the device obviously no longer pertain in the third and fourth categories. Conversely, employees are going to have much higher privacy expectations, especially with respect to the fourth category.

Bring Your Own Device”?

HR and legal experts advise that companies adopt a so-called Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy to deal with the third and fourth categories. A clear statement in a company’s employee handbook will define the boundaries of employee privacy expectations and thereby significantly strengthen the employer’s rights with respect to such devices. A typical BYOD policy will allow the employer to “see the wireless carrier, country, make and model, operating system version, battery level, phone number, location, storage use, corporate email and corporate data.” It also typically allows the employer to see “the names of all the apps on the device, both personal and work-related.” (It should be noted that Apple’s iOS privacy features sharply limit an employer’s ability to remotely monitor personal apps, which makes the technology problem more difficult.)

Polling data from the business sector consistently confirm that employees are disconcerted by BYOD policies and do not trust their employers with access to personal smart phone data. In a tight job market, employers sometimes have to relax their BYOD policies to attract or retain workers.

The Church faces a similar issue. It could adopt a policy limiting priests to using Church-owned tablets and phones, but such a policy poses the question whether legitimate personal email and internet use should be allowed. In addition, of course, the cost of providing Church-owned tablets and phones to priests and religious would be substantial.

Alternatively, the Church could adopt a BYOD policy that requires priests and religious to have their smartphones constantly monitored so that their location and use can be tracked. If the device’s privacy technology limits the Church’s ability to monitor its use, the device could also be subject to regular in-person examination.

Obviously, neither policy would prevent a determined rogue priest from evading the rules by using burner smartphones. By raising the costs of succumbing to temptation, however, such a policy would at least deter casual violations of a priest’s vows.

 

Credibility, Privacy, and Vocations

As with secular employers who must make trade-offs between attracting employees and monitoring those employees to prevent their use of smart devices from harming the company, the Church needs to balance its ability to attract priests and religious with the need to preserve its own credibility.

On the one hand, the dearth of vocations could be compounded if candidates for the priesthood were told that their smart devices would be routinely monitored. After all, who wants to feel like Big Brother is constantly looking over their shoulder? As The New York Times observed:

Father Bob Bonnot, the executive director of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, said the use of cellphone data to track the movement of Monsignor Burrill had deepened a sense of vulnerability many priests feel.

“It can be terribly threatening,” he said. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”

On the other hand, unlike most private employers, the Church faces the unique problem—in economic terms—of being a monoline producer whose sole product is a credence good. The adherence of its employees to their vow of celibacy is a critical element of maintaining the credibility of that product. As a result, the costs of employee misconduct are particularly high for the Church.

In light of the vocations issue and concerns about privacy, a BYOD policy that significantly intrudes on priests’ privacy doubtless should be a last resort. Given the tremendous damage the earlier sex scandals did to the Church’s credibility, as evidenced by declining attendance and financial support, renewed concerns about priestly celibacy that make it even harder for the Church to persuade consumers to buy its product may justify such a resort.

What the Church needs is data. Widely gathering anonymized data of the sort published by The Pillar would tell the Church how much of a problem it is facing. If only a tiny percentage of priests are using apps to hook up, better formation might be an adequate solution. If a substantial number are doing so, however, it would appear that the supposed improvements to priestly formation undertaken in recent years have failed and stronger measures are required.

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