The Tragedy of Msgr. Burrill

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Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill

If you follow Church news at all, doubtless you’re aware of the recent resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, former general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Msgr. Burrill resigned after The Pillar, a relatively new Catholic online media outlet, revealed that information obtained from his cell phone records showed that Msgr. Burrill’s phone included a hookup app called Grindr and that location app data revealed that Msgr. Burrill’s phone (and, so, one may presume Msgr. Burrill himself) visited private residences of men, gay bars, and a gay bathhouse in Las Vegas. The data also confirmed visits to less conspicuous locations, such as a family lake house in Wisconsin, meetings at the offices of the USCCB, and Burrill’s apartment residence.

This story has inspired a huge debate among Catholics and journalists. One of the issues of the debate is the ethics of revealing data of a private individual on the basis, presumably, of the fact that he (or she) holds a prominent office. Does holding a prominent office in the Church justify the revelation of data that most people would regard as private? Now, The Pillar insists that the data is commercially available and that app users know that the information is available to those who desire it, for whatever reason. Indeed, the Grindr data, apparently, is used by other Grindr app holders in order to contact and converse with each other. On that basis, it doesn’t seem that the data is very private at all. It isn’t that simple, of course. It’s one thing for an individual to understand that others who have the app may use that information to contact them. It’s quite another to consider that those who have no interest in using the app nevertheless have an interest in you, and how you may be using the app. No one is accusing The Pillar of having done anything illegal. They haven’t. But, is what they did ethical? Many journalists, and those in the public eye, think not. It’s kinda scary to think that anyone who might have an interest in bringing you down can gain access to information on you that you would otherwise have reason to think is private.

This is how The Pillar explains their obtaining the information on Msgr. Burrill’s app:

“The Grindr app and similar hookup apps use mobile device location data to allow users to see a listing of other nearby users of the app, to chat and exchange images with nearby users within the app, or to arrange a meeting for the sake of an anonymous sexual encounter.

“Commercially available app signal data does not identify the names of app users, but instead correlates a unique numerical identifier to each mobile device using particular apps. Signal data, collected by apps after users consent to data collection, is aggregated and sold by data vendors. It can be analyzed to provide timestamped location data and usage information for each numbered device. 

“The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar conveys mobile app date signals during two 26- week periods, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 and 2020. The data was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”

Based on that explanation, it’s reasonable to conclude that the data obtained by The Pillar is accurate, though it does not confirm that Msgr. Burrill visited these locations for the purpose of sexual encounters, and there is nothing to suggest that Msgr. Burrill was sexually inappropriate with minors. It’s reasonable, too, to conclude that The Pillar targeted Msgr. Burrill in hopes of finding information that might be interesting and useable. Why? I suspect they were tipped off by someone who knows Msgr. Burrill and was aware of his activities and wanted others to know. I can’t imagine that The Pillar picked Msgr. Burrill to randomly target and struck journalistic, or maybe at least tabloid, gold. No. Someone tipped off the guys who run The Pillar and that is why they purchased app data on this particular priest. The Pillar’s next project is targeting the priests of the Archdiocese of Newark, where app data confirms the use of location-based hookup apps at some of the parish rectories in the archdiocese. The Pillar reports that, “While a spokesperson told The Pillar it is ‘not acceptable’ to use apps ‘inconsistent with Church teaching,’ the archdiocese has also expressed concerns about the ‘morally suspect’ collection of app signal data.”

I’m not sure where I stand on this debate. We do background checks on candidates for the priesthood and diaconate. I don’t know if regular background checks are done on those already ordained. Is it reasonable to include electronic data in those background checks? Should we be doing regular background checks on those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the Church that include electronic devices and, if so, how often? One thing’s for sure. Someone knew about Msgr. Burrill’s activities, and kept quiet about it. Perhaps tipping off The Pillar was their way of getting the word out, or they did so out of frustration when no one else cared to listen.

This debate isn’t going to end anytime soon. As John Allen, a respected Catholic journalist who runs Crux, says: this is going to change the face of Catholic journalism forever. Because, whether some think the collection of this type of data is ethical or not, it is legal and it is available. As such, there are those who will obtain it and will be willing to report on it. It may be that the private lives of priests and deacons, just like the private lives of most politicians, is a thing of the past.

Another aspect of this tragedy is the debate on whether or not Msgr. Burrill should have resigned, even if he did engage in sexual misconduct. There are those who point out, of course, that we are all sinners, and the Church is supposed to practice mercy. Well, yes and yes. But, the fact that we are all sinners doesn’t justify having in a position of trust, responsibility and leadership someone who struggles with a pattern of grave sin. Msgr. Burrill’s activities have the potential to cause scandal — that is, to suggest to others that this kind of activity is not problematic, even if one is a leader in the Church. Msgr. Burrill obviously struggles with sexual perversions (yes, that’s what they are!). The Church’s mercy must and is available to him. He needs to work with those who can help him heal whatever wounds he has, to exorcise whatever demons he struggles with. This is going to take a long time. He has no business, then, taking on the type of leadership responsibilities of one in his position while he is working toward that healing. Nothing Msgr. Burrill did, so far as we know, was illegal. But, it does constitute grave moral wrong, and it represents a pattern of sin with others that jeopardizes the eternal life of those others as well as that of Msgr. Burrill. Of course, he should have resigned. He says he resigned so he would not be a distraction. That is a statement that admits of no guilt. Fine. He doesn’t need to admit guilt to anyone but his confessor. But, he certainly did need to resign.

I have often said that the sins of Catholics over the centuries have been so many and so heinous, it amazes me that people still feel the need to make things up. It seems that Msgr. Burrill’s sins are many, if not so heinous. Our prayers for mercy must include him, even as we confess our own many sins and struggle to be faithful in all things. It is only God’s grace that saves us.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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