Early in my religion-beat career, a veteran Catholic leader gave me wise advice about the challenges reporters would face covering the emerging national scandals about sexual abuse by bishops and priests.
Never forget, he said, that these scandals are not about “left vs. right.” Plenty of people, across the whole spectrum of Catholic life, have secrets in the past and some in the present.
Soon after that, I heard almost exactly the same take from the late A.W. Richard Sipe, the former Benedictine monk, priest and psychotherapist who spent more than a half-century studying the sexual secrets of Catholic clergy. A strong voice for progressive Catholic causes, he served as an witness or consultant in at least 250 civil legal actions. As I wrote in an “On Religion” column, soon after Sipe’s death:
“Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” he wrote, in a 2016 letter to his local shepherd, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.
“When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.”
Once again, the key is secrecy, because a fog of secrecy, sin and shame can be use to hide all kinds of painful issues.
I bring this up, of course, because of the firestorm that has greeted an investigative report from The Pillar that ran with this headline: “USCCB gen sec Burrill resigns after sexual misconduct allegations.” Here is the overture:
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced his resignation Tuesday, after The Pillar found evidence the priest engaged in serial sexual misconduct, while he held a critical oversight role in the Catholic Church’s response to the recent spate of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals.
“It is with sadness that I inform you that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill has resigned as General Secretary of the Conference,” Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote July 20 in a memo to U.S. bishops.
The key evidence was information drawn from signals on the hookup app Grindr, which a Vanity Fair feature once called “The World’s Biggest, Scariest Gay Bar.”
Debates about this scandal center on two questions: (1) Who mined this private tech data and then offered it to several Catholic publications? (2) Can these allegations against this powerful priest be linked in any way to the long history of scandals about sexual abuse of children and adults by Catholic clergy?
The Pillar report connected several of these dots in the following way:
… An analysis of app data signals correlated to Burrill’s mobile device shows the priest … visited gay bars and private residences while using a location-based hookup app in numerous cities from 2018 to 2020, even while traveling on assignment for the U.S. bishops’ conference.
According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 — at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities.
In 2018, the priest was a member of the USCCB’s executive staff and charged with oversight of the conference’s pastoral departments. He and several senior USCCB officials met with Pope Francis Oct. 8, 2018, to discuss how the conference was responding to ecclesiastical scandals related to sexual misconduct, duplicity, and clerical cover-ups.
Later on in the report, The Pillar team notes the complex role that technology is playing in investigations of abuse cases, of all kinds, with victims of all ages. Thus, the “use of location-based hookup apps” has become an issue for those attempting to protect children and teens.
The Pillar story states:
There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr. But any use of the app by the priest could be seen to present a conflict with his role in developing and overseeing national child protection policies, as Church leaders have called in recent months for a greater emphasis on technology accountability in Church policies. …
In Italy, the United States, and Ireland, at least seven priests and deacons in recent years have been arrested or faced charges after using hookup apps to meet or solicit minors for sex, solicit child pornography selfies from minors, or blackmail and extort minors who provided child pornography.
Grindr and similar apps have come under fire in recent years among child protection advocates, who say that because the apps prioritize anonymity and confidentiality without doing enough to screen users for age, they have become a frequent point of contact between minors and adults interested in soliciting pornographic photographs or meeting for sexual encounters. In some cases, minors are marketed for prostitution through hookup apps, sometimes by adult pimps, studies have found.
Connecting the allegations against Burrill with the sexual-abuse scandals is an outrage, according to numerous Catholic voices. Most of these comments are coming from the Catholic left, but it is clear that many people — no labels needed — are concerned about the role of technology and “private” information in this scandal. Will this affect others in the church?
Here are some important exchanges on Twitter: