It has been two days since Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill resigned as General Secretary to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). As with every other major Catholic news story that’s appeared in recent months, it’s served to demonstrate the widening gap between opposing approaches to the faith and the world. Some Catholics have fixed their ire on the sins of yet another fallen priest, while others are asking moral and ethical questions about the way the information was uncovered and the publication of the story.
Tuesday afternoon, the story by JD Flynn and Ed Condon, editors of the Catholic online newsletter The Pillar, was released. It revealed that Msgr. Burrill used the gay hook-up app Grindr regularly between 2018 and 2020, and was tracked going to places that suggested he had violated his obligations as a priest. Burrill’s mobile phone data was obtained by the Pillar, and they were provided with information about his whereabouts and app usage over the time period. The data indicated it wasn’t a one-time indiscretion, but a pattern of behavior.
Obviously once the information was brought to the attention of his superiors, he had to resign.
In a 2018 book, Pope Francis said priests “should be urged to live celibacy wholly and, especially, to be perfectly responsible, trying to never create scandal in their communities or for the holy people of God by living a double life…It would be better if they left the ministry or consecrated life rather than live a double life.” This admonition can be applied to all priests and religious who have an obligation to live chastity and celibacy. Msgr. Burrill went on to live the double life that the pope condemned.
I’m shocked, saddened, and scandalized. This struck close to home.
I knew Msgr. Burrill. We overlapped for about a year and a half at the USCCB, from his arrival in 2016 until I left the conference in mid-2017. I didn’t know him terribly well, but he was very friendly and we had some nice conversations at the lunch table in the USCCB cafeteria. I found him affable, down to earth, orthodox, smart, and approachable.
I was sickened when I read about what he had done. I didn’t work at the conference during the time his data was tracked, so I don’t know if it was happening when I knew him. Whenever he started doing it, however, and whatever his reasons, his actions were sinful and inexcusable. He betrayed God, the Church, his vocation, the USCCB, everyone who trusted him or counted on him. It’s clear that he contributed to the “filth” in the Church that has been decried so many times by Popes Francis and Benedict.
I want to make this clear: Msgr. Burrill’s actions required a clear and definitive response, regardless of whether the actions that led to these revelations were morally licit.
Ultimately the big news story here won’t be the priest outed by the Pillar. The big story will be the ethics of how the information was obtained, whether mining, buying, and selling personal data is a breach of privacy, and—as a matter of Catholic moral doctrine—whether the type of reporting done by the Pillar qualifies as the sin of detraction.
The Ethics of Weaponized Personal Data
There are risks and dangers here that we probably can’t foresee. Ed Condon and JD Flynn, the editors of the Pillar, likely didn’t fully consider the implications of what they did before they did it. After the Pillar’s story was posted, secular media outlets didn’t focus on the sex scandal, but instead on the completely unprecedented nature of the report. As VICE News put it:
“It finally happened. After years of warning from researchers, journalists, and even governments, someone used highly sensitive location data from a smartphone app to track and publicly harass a specific person. In this case, Catholic Substack publication The Pillar said it used location data ultimately tied to Grindr to trace the movements of a priest, and then outed him publicly as potentially gay without his consent. The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the outing led to his resignation.”
Technology news website Ars Technica described the Pillar’s report as “what appears to be a first, a public figure has been ousted after de-anonymized mobile phone location data was publicly reported, revealing sensitive and previously private details about his life.” They spoke with Alan Butler, the executive director of the Electronic Information Privacy Center, who told them the case is “hugely significant,” and “a clear and prominent example of the exact problem that folks in my world, privacy advocates and experts, have been screaming from the rooftops for years, which is that uniquely identifiable data is not anonymous.”
Molly Olmstead of Slate provided more reactions to the Pillar piece from leaders in the tech and data security world. She also noted the novel and controversial nature of this type of reporting. She wrote, “There’s little precedent for this kind of tactic in the US. While authorities in other countries have used gay dating and hookup apps—mainly through entrapment with fake accounts—to persecute queer people, the concerns over the app in the US have had more to do with protecting users from other users.”
Olmstead spoke to technologist Nat Meysenburg, who told her that this is something that had been warned about for years by experts. He told her that “it only took a particularly determined group of people with a very specific goal in mind and the time to work through the data.” The danger now, he told her ” is that this gets replicated by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.”
Let that soak in. What the Pillar’s editors did was so extraordinary from a journalistic perspective that the secular media chose to focus on the ethics and dangers behind the reporting of the story, rather than on a prominent priest’s involvement in a sex scandal in the Catholic Church. That a Catholic news outlet—and not, say, a tabloid or political outlet—was the first media entity to expose a public figure’s private scandal in this way is remarkable.
From a technological and data security standpoint, the actions taken by the Pillar represent a warning about the dangers of data collection. They serve as a lesson about big tech and how much of our privacy and personal security we have lost. And make no mistake, the Pillar is not the good guy in this story.
Moral and Doctrinal Considerations
From the standpoint of Catholic moral teaching, what are we to make of this report? Obviously, a man who was engaged in sinful activities that contradicted his position in the Church was exposed and lost his job. This can serve as a warning to any Catholic leader who might be tempted to engage in immoral activity. It will certainly make them think twice before downloading any hook-up apps. So that means it was a good thing, right? Or did they go too far?
Simcha Fisher, who agreed that Msgr. Burrill needed to be removed from his post, questioned the ethics of the Pillar going forward with the report even though Burrill resigned before its publication:
“Apparently, The Pillar approached the USCCB and let them know the story was in the works. The USCCB agreed to meet, got rid of the guy, and then told the Pillar, “You know what, we’ll talk some other time.” The Pillar then published the story. So in effect, this is a story about someone making a report of wrongdoing, and the USCCB responding appropriately. If the goal was to remove an unfit cleric from office (either for the sake of justice, or to protect themselves from blackmail), I’m hard pressed to say why it was necessary to go ahead with publishing, since they already accomplished what was presumably their goal.
Or, if that wasn’t their goal, what was it? Are they going to publish stories every time someone who works for the church is caught in sin? Where is the line? I am not sure myself, and I am very curious about what the Pillar’s line is.”
The Pillar’s editors may have revealed that line in the May 14 edition of the “Pillar Post,” when Condon foreshadowed what was to come:
Justice is about more than just getting someone out of a job. It is about the discovery of truth, bringing what has been done in the dark into the light, and allowing an authentic and public reconciliation to occur. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a result matters as much in a legal process as the ‘what’ at the end of it — otherwise how can anyone have confidence that justice has truly been served?
In other words, he doesn’t believe removal is enough. Obviously, when a case involves criminal activity, when people are in danger, or when the person is a threat to the safety of others, it is necessary to reveal any information that might protect the common good. But in Msgr. Burrill’s case, there was no evidence that he was engaged in illegal activities, that he had put any minors or adults at risk, or that he did anything that harmed the USCCB or his colleagues in a tangible way. Furthermore, it seems that this was a private sin. He apparently did this of his own initiative, and the use of the app indicates that he was acting alone, and was not part of any kind of “gay lobby” or “lavender mafia” (as many reactionary Catholics often like to suggest). So what was the purpose of revealing so many details?
Did we really need to geotrack his every move? Did we need to know how often he used the app? Did we need to know the name of the bathhouse he visited? Did we need to know a “moral theologian’s” theories about how he was on a slippery slope to pedophilia? (A claim, by the way, that has been refuted by the US bishops, Vatican officials, and other researchers.)
My own opinion was quoted in Marisa Iati and Michelle Boorstein’s Washington Post report on the reactions to the Burrell story:
“Mike Lewis, founder of the Catholic news site Where Peter Is, said he felt torn about the Pillar’s publication of Burrill’s alleged use of Grindr and visits to gay bars. Burrill allegedly violated the promises he made as a priest and needed to step down, Lewis said. But he added that he was uncomfortable with the digital surveillance used to uncover the claims.
‘Rather than bringing the truth to light, it’s ruining a man’s life,’ said Lewis.”
I fully understand the temptation and impulse to bring everything under public scrutiny and call for Church leaders to have total accountability in all their actions. We live in an unjust, imperfect world, and our hearts cry out to God for vengeance in the face of hypocrisy. And many clearly are edified that an important, unchaste, gay clergyman has been publicly exposed.
But even if an act is legal or if it is geared towards bringing the truth to light, there are moral limits. We can never do evil so that good might come from it. As St. Paul wrote in Romans 3:8, “Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!”
The Catechism teaches against the sin of detraction: “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty … of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (n. 2477). Later in the same section, it explains, “Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity” (n. 2479).
In Gaudete et Exultate, Pope Francis writes, “Detraction and calumny are acts of terrorism: a bomb is thrown, it explodes and the attacker walks away calm and contented. This is completely different from the nobility of those who speak to others face to face, serenely and frankly, out of genuine concern for their good” (fn. 73).
Was the article calumnious? While some might try to justify the airing of Msgr. Burrill’s personal sins because it will ultimately serve the greater good, the act itself must be justified on its own terms. If the act of sharing his personal details was evil, then it cannot be morally justified.* The ends do not justify the means.
Msgr. Burrill resigned prior to the publication of the article, therefore forcing his removal was not the reason for its publication. Does Ed Condon’s reasoning suffice? According to him, making such facts known “is about the discovery of truth, bringing what has been done in the dark into the light, and allowing an authentic and public reconciliation to occur.” Condon goes on to assert:
This isn’t, to be clear, about dragging bad actors through the mud with the gory details of their misdeeds. The rigors of public, transparent legal process and results are as important, even more important, to the people it exonerates than for those it condemns. For many innocent clergy who find themselves accused, their only hope of clearing their name is in due process, something all too many of them are still denied.
Isn’t this exposé precisely an exercise in dragging Msgr. Burrill through the mud with the gory details of his misdeeds? It seems that Flynn and Condon may imagine this being the first step in an attempt to bring the institution to its knees and into a new era of accountability. But how does any of that justify singling out and shaming a single middle-aged bureaucratic priest from Wisconsin who had already resigned from his job and whose ecclesial career was likely done? Once again, do the ends justify the means?
They did not discover that Burrill was a sexual predator, there is no evidence that he did anything improper with minors, and Flynn and Condon had no reason to think he was ever going to have an important position in the Church again. I ask again: what “objectively valid reason” did they have to publish the article on Tuesday?
The article was sordid. It was immoral. It was detraction.
Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, OP tweeted Wednesday morning, “Truth spread by detraction casts more shadow than light.”
This story is far from over. Given the reaction in the mainstream media to the unprecedented way in which the data was used, it will likely lead to greater discussions about privacy in the era of smartphones and the ethical use of personal data. The floodgates may have opened, and similar stories will follow. Will the Pillar try it again with another priest? Will they face unforeseen consequences? That remains to be seen.
The Pillar story also leaves many unanswered questions. For example, both the Pillar and Catholic News Agency (which ran a cryptic article on Monday that indicated something like this would be happening) withheld the name of the agency that provided the data. The Pillar didn’t indicate who paid for the data set (note that their article said “obtained” rather than bought or purchased). For that matter, the Pillar has never disclosed their primary source(s) of funding. Did CNA and the Pillar work in tandem? Why did they target Msgr. Burrill, of all people?
There isn’t much transparency from people who claim to want transparency.
I recommend this thread on Twitter by Dawn Eden Goldstein, who has done heroic work in digging up information about the funding of these organizations.
* Update 7/23/2021: edited this sentence for clarity
Image: Adobe Stock.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.