There was a major scandal in the Catholic Church last month when Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the general secretary of the (very conservative) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, resigned from that position after he had been outed for using the app Grindr to presumably meet other men.
He didn’t commit any crimes. Nothing he did was non-consensual. But assuming he used the app to hook up with other men, that meant he violated Catholic doctrine since the Church says priests are supposed to be celibate and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”
But that wasn’t the only controversy here. Why would it be? It’s not exactly unusual for priests to break their vows of celibacy or act on their homosexuality, even if it’s relatively rare among leadership. This was a scandal because an outside group tracking Burrill’s phone and found that he was frequenting gay bars and using Grindr.
It was a complete invasion of his privacy (regardless of what you think about his hypocrisy). You can read more details about what happened here.
Simply put, this was about more than exposing a hypocrite. And if the two men at the conservative outlet The Pillar were willing to use suspiciously acquired information to out one priest, how many more would they expose? And would that be ethical, even if the information was accurate?
I know some readers are fine with it. If these priests belong to an anti-gay organization like the Catholic Church, to hell with their privacy; let’s air their dirty laundry no matter the method.
But it’s also worth mentioning that just about everyone has secrets they wouldn’t want the world to know about. Outing people without their consent has always been viewed as unethical. And some priests exploring their sexuality may be on a path out of the Church — exposing them would create more problems than it would solve.
And, of course, the bulk of the problem lies with the rigidity and bigotry of Catholic beliefs. Blame the message, not the messengers, even if they chose these professions. Many of them were on the path to priesthood long before they were old enough to know any better.
(The Pillar didn’t help matters by making it clear there’s no evidence Burrill met up with minors… as if that was a natural thing to assume since Burrill was meeting up with men.)
So on one side, you had an invasion of privacy, outing someone as gay against his will, and the use of stolen information… and on the other, you had a Catholic hypocrite in a position of power. I’m all for exposing bad behavior among religious leaders, but everything about this story just felt sketchy. As I wrote earlier, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for gay priests who choose to join a corrupt, bigoted institution, then whine about being unable to have sex or get married or have children. But I also refuse to treat a gay priest as some kind of heretic because he broke his vows in order to act on his perfectly natural (and legal and consensual) desires.
Yesterday, the New York Times‘ Liam Stack gave us an update on the story, suggesting that more Catholic priests were “on edge” in fear of being outed next:
The first report [by The Pillar], published late last month, led to the resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference. The second, posted online days later, made claims about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark. The third, published days after that, claimed that in 2018 at least 32 mobile devices emitted dating app data signals from within areas of Vatican City that are off-limits to tourists.
No one else has been outed or linked to the “scandal” since Burrill. The only “news” is that dozens of other priests may be hypocrites in similar ways… which isn’t really shocking. (We’ve always known there are gay priests. We’ve always known there are priests who secretly have sex.) I’m more disturbed by the people at The Pillar than the priests.
The reports have raised a host of questions: How did The Pillar obtain the cellphone data? How did it analyze the data, which is commercially available in an anonymous form, to identify individual app users? How widespread is the use of dating apps among Catholic priests, and how much has The Pillar been able to learn about specific individuals?
The editors of The Pillar, J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon, have refused to answer any of those questions and did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story. They have also declined interview requests from other news media.
It’s not clear if The Pillar will publish more articles using the data. Flynn and Condon have made it clear, though, that they want to purge the Church of anyone who doesn’t adhere to its dogmatic ways. It’s possible they can be both accurate with their information and highly unethical in terms of journalism. As we learned years ago, people can have their private pictures hacked and published online; just because the pictures are real doesn’t justify the invasion of personal space.
Anyone who cares about consent should oppose the way The Pillar is acquiring this information and condemn the Church for clinging to its anti-LGBTQ bigotry and archaic celibacy rules. That’s where the outrage should be directed, not at the priests breaking idiotic rules, despite their vows, even if it makes them hypocrites.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Portions of this article were published earlier. Thanks to everyone for the link)