Did an AI priest dupe Cebu Catholics about ‘Santo Niño Hubad’?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Did an AI priest dupe Cebu Catholics about ‘Santo Niño Hubad’?

AI PRIEST? 'Father Niño' claims to have been a priest for 40 years, in a video promoting the lucky charm called Santo Niño Hubad.

Screenshot from Santo Niño Hubad de Cebu/Facebook

Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma denies blessing lucky charms called ‘Santo Niño Hubad’ as claimed by ‘Father Niño,’ a white-haired priest who sounds like a man in his 20s

Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma debunked a single lie: “I didn’t bless any naked Santo Niño,” he said on Monday, October 16, contrary to a promotional video on a lucky charm called “Santo Niño Hubad.”

But – as they say in TV shopping – wait, there’s more.

The priest in the video, a certain “Father Niño” (he did not disclose his surname), is a white-haired cleric who claims to be celebrating his 40th year as a priest in Cebu. He said that in celebration of his 40th presbyteral anniversary, he is giving away 40 free statues of Santo Niño Hubad, and buyers need only to shoulder the shipping fee.

The Santo Niño Hubad is a naked version of the Cebuanos’ iconic Santo Niño de Cebu, an image of the child Jesus that is believed to have been given by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana of Cebu in 1521. Housed in the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño Cebu, the image is now a symbol of the arrival of Christianity in the country five centuries ago.

His Santo Niño Hubad statues, added Father Niño, are “limited edition” because these were blessed by Palma.

Similar statues are being sold not only on Facebook, but also on platforms such as Shopee and Lazada for P100 to P300 ($1.80 to $5.30) each.

But hmm… why does the elderly Father Niño sound like a man in his 20s or 30s? Why do his lips and his words sound out of sync? And, well, those golden vestments and the golden cross hanging on his neck? That’s not what a Catholic priest wears in the current season called “Ordinary Time” (their vestment color nowadays is generally green) and outside the context of Holy Mass. 

Rappler checked with Monsignor Joseph Tan, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Cebu, who said on Thursday, October 19: “I have not heard of a Father Niño in Cebu…. We know of no such priest among the diocesan clergy of Cebu to my recollection.” He suggested checking with other religious communities or denominations, which have their own priests and pastors.

Is “Father Niño” even a person? Is he an AI creation? (Yes, if you haven’t heard, there are AI software products that can “create” a person. In August, our business reporter Ralf Rivas even reported that a Japanese AI company launched a feature that can mimic the Filipino accent.)

Did an AI priest dupe Cebu Catholics about ‘Santo Niño Hubad’?

We checked elements of the video against an AI detection tool, www.airornot.com, to determine if the video was fake. Developed by San Francisco-based Optic and featured at least twice on the New York Times, “AI or Not” checks if an image or audio was created by AI or by a human being.

“AI or Not” found that the image of “Father Niño” (we uploaded a video screenshot) “is likely human” but his voice “is likely AI.”

Page, Text, File
‘LIKELY AI.’ The AI detection tool ‘AI or Not’ evaluates the audio of ‘Father Niño.’

In another AI tool, www.illuminarty.ai, the same video screenshot yielded an “AI probability” of 15.2%. Illuminarty has no ability to detect AI-created audio.

Adult, Male, Man
AI IMAGE? The ‘AI probability’ of this video screenshot is 15.2%, according to the AI detection tool Illuminarty.

Whether or not “Father Niño” is AI, the fact remains: he lied about the Santo Niño Hubad.

Besides, as the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño Cebu reminds its flock, “Sacred images remind us to deepen our trust and faith in God.” Certainly not the work of lucky charms.

Times like this, indeed, require a little more discernment – and the elusive ability to smell AI from miles away. It’s getting trickier to heed Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, to “be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com