The pen-pal memory came to mind after reading and hearing about the still-unfolding story of Notre Dame University’s star football player, Manti Te’o.
Te’o, a Mormon, who led the Catholic university to an undefeated regular season and this year’s national championship game, is at the center of an online dating hoax that would put the Loch Ness Monster hoax to shame.
According to various reports, Te’o, a native of Hawaii, began an online relationship in 2010 with fellow Hawaiian, Lennay Kekua, who in reality never existed. Instead, someone calling herself Kekua and using pictures of another woman for her identity began correspondence with Te’o on Facebook. The online friendship blossomed into a love relationship. In addition to computer contact, Te’o said they would spend hours talking on their cell phones.
What turned this sophomoric prank into a cruel hoax was the claim that Kekua had been diagnosed and later died from leukemia. More than one person was involved in the hoax, as Te’o told Notre Dame officials that Kekua’s brother called to tell him about her passing last September. “This was a very elaborate, very sophisticated hoax, perpetrated for reasons we don’t understand,” said Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick.
Te’o released a statement Jan. 16, calling the hoax “incredibly embarrassing.” Two days later, Te’o told a reporter that he allowed his family to believe he had met Kekua because he was too embarrassed to admit that their relationship was based solely on cell phone and online contact.
“Over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” he said in his statement. “We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.”
Playing online pranks such as this even has a name: “Catfishing.” The name comes from a 2010 documentary, “Catfish,” about a real-life victim of an online dating scam, Nev Schulman. The documentary inspired a cable TV show where online dating scams are exposed.
Life in a wired world is no longer as care-free as the days of pen-pal relationships. Trolling online for unsuspecting, lovesick strangers is a game where the losers, like Te’o, are emotionally wounded and scarred. Along with being the butt of cruel jokes, Te’o’s trust in the goodness of others may never be the same.
Creating false identities online for the purpose of misrepresentation may seem to some as a harmless, virtual charade, but it violates the eighth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2464) reminds us that “offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.”
Manti Te’o’s story ought to be a lesson for parents and children on the dangers of cyber-relationships and a reminder to all of us that deceiving others online is as much an offense to God as defrauding them in real life.