QUEENS, N.Y. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A New York priest has been arrested by the FBI for allegedly trading naked photos with a 15-year-old boy he met on the hookup app Grindr.
The suspect, Fr. Francis Hughes, 65, of St. Pancras Church in the diocese of Brooklyn, was arrested Wednesday and charged with one count of receipt and distribution of child pornography.
After the arrest, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, had some words of caution for parents of children and adolescents.
"The allegations against Francis Hughes are chilling and frightening to any parent. A person who, by the nature of his profession, is presumed to be trustworthy allegedly victimized a child. Thanks to the FBI, Hughes now faces a serious federal charge," she said.
If convicted, this carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum sentence of 20 years.
According to the indictment unsealed on Wednesday, Hughes began the exchange with a Westchester County teen over the internet in February. After sending messages back and forth for a few minutes, the teen asked if he could send Hughes a sexually explicit image. Hughes allegedly responded, "I'd never get mad about that."
The teen then sent two sexually explicit photos to Hughes, who responded by sending his own nude photo, according to the indictment. The two then chatted about Hughes becoming the adolescent's "sugar daddy" before the teen told him via text message that his Grindr account had been suspended.
It was unclear how investigators were first tipped off, but according to the indictment, Hughes was caught after the FBI executed a search warrant on the teen's phone, finding the explicit texts.
Strauss and William Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the New York office of the FBI, announced the arrest Wednesday. Hughes and the teen allegedly exchanged the pornographic images after engaging in sexually explicit text messaging. The indictment did not specify whether the priest knew the teen was underage.
Strauss praised the efforts of the FBI and its Westchester County Safe Streets Task Force and thanked the Greenburgh Police Department for its assistance. She added that the investigation is ongoing.
Sweeney agreed with Strauss on the egregious nature of such a crime coming from an authority figure like a priest: "We expect adults, especially those in positions of trust like Francis Hughes, to protect our children, not victimize them. Sadly, these allegations demonstrate there are still predators out there who abuse this trust."The prosecution is being handled by the office's White Plains Division. Assistant U.S. Attorney Marcia S. Cohen is in charge of the prosecution. Hughes appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Margaret Smith in White Plains federal court.
Sweeney also put out a clarion call to any potential victims of Hughes or their parents.
"If you or anyone you know may have been a victim of Rev. Hughes, we are asking you to contact us at 1-800-CALL-FBI," he said. "If you are a parent or guardian, please take a moment to have a discussion with your children about protecting themselves and about how they can report the type of predatory behavior that is alleged here today."
While Bp. Nicholas DiMarzio of the diocese of Brooklyn has made no public comments, the diocesan spokesman announced that Fr. Hughes has been removed from his parish.
Bishop DiMarzio has himself been accused of sexual abuse, as Church Militant reported in November. He was accused a second time in June. These allegations arose after he was appointed Vatican investigator for the troubled diocese of Buffalo. DiMarzio has denied the truth of both allegations.
Hughes was ordained a priest in 1980 and has served at eight parishes and one preparatory school and seminary before being arrested. Nothing was mentioned on the St. Pancras website, although Hughes' information was deleted from his page.
This is not the first time federal prosecutors have been involved in the ongoing clergy scandal. In 2014, federal investigators charged Fr. Richard James Kurtz, (a Jesuit priest and former high school teacher, age 69) with production, transportation and possession of child pornography. Federal investigators were also involved in the 2018 clergy-abuse probe in Pennsylvania. On July 20 of this year, Church Militant reported that federal authorities indicted Fr. Lenin Vargas of the diocese of Jackson, Mississippi for wire fraud.