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Recently the Catholic website The Pillar broke a story about Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, then-general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The general secretary is one of the most powerful figures in the American Catholic Church. The story was that "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." The Pillar contacted the USCCB for a private discussion about these findings. Monsignor Burrill resigned before the discussion, and The Pillar made the story public.
The Religion News Service set the line for media reaction with a story titled "The Pillar investigation of Msgr. Burrill is unethical, homophobic innuendo":
I am a sinner. So are you. So is Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to Burrill. ... [U]nless there is some reason to think he has harmed someone else, I feel sure his sins are none of my business, as much as my sins are none of yours. As a Catholic, I am bound to believe all of that.
Anyone who has talked to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests will recognize this line. It is used by religious superiors to pressure and shame victims who come forward to report their abuse and to make them shut up and go away. My own contacts with sexual abuse victims have largely been with people abused by priests of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). They have all heard Prof. Millies' argument from SSPX priests. It is interesting to see this progressive academic display openness to reactionary Catholic attitudes.
The Washington Post, Real Clear Religion and the National Catholic Reporter all ran this story. Catholic News Agency, owned by EWTN, published an interview with a professor of journalism who commented, "The end never justifies the means, even if they are digital and seem credible because of technology."
Various progressive Catholic sources such as Commonweal, La Croix International, Fr. James Martin, S.J. and America Magazine all repeated the same line. That is to be expected from them; what is striking is the unanimous front of what are thought to be independent mainstream religious news services.
This united front is adopting a tried-and-tested approach to bad publicity: 1) Change the subject; 2) attack the messenger; 3) use multiple lies. The originator of the story is then put on the defensive. The public is diverted from the original story by the originator's defense. The topic becomes whether or not journalistic ethics have been breached, not the antics of Msgr. Burrill. It is thus necessary to respond to this strategy without losing sight of Msgr. Burrill.
Grindr is a dating app for homosexuals. It lets them know whenever another user is in the vicinity, giving the precise distance in feet. One user observes:
If you picture Tinder's interface like a filtration system, imagine Grindr like wading through a swamp with no shoes on. Anyone can send you unsolicited nudes as their icebreaker. ANYONE. There's no degree of separation for a vetting process, it's just a bunch of thirsty dudes in geographic cesspools hunting one another. ... Tinder is where you can post vacation photos with maybe a family member or best girlfriend to make it look like you're a fun and functional human being. Don't do that on Grindr. Grindr is for hookups, without having to go through the boring formalities like "What's your name?" or "What do you do when the sun is up?"
In order to use the app, you must sign a release stating that it can collect and sell personal data about yourself. Monsignor Burrill signed this release, and the resulting data was then bought perfectly legally by The Pillar.
It might be objected that although this was legal, it was not moral. Conservatives are always complaining about the excessive power of Big Tech to gather information and calling for this power to be reined in; why are there no such complaints in the case of Burrill? Here is a textbook case of electronic surveillance being used to violate someone's privacy and ruin their career. The objection goes: It is both false and hypocritical of Catholic conservatives to say that this is legitimate in Burrill's case.
This objection does not work for Msgr. Burrill's use of Grindr. The whole point of Grindr is that it makes public your sexual availability. If it did not do this, it could not arrange random sexual encounters with strangers, which is what it is for. Grindr just is a way of making public announcements about your interest in and availability for homosexual activity at a given time and place. Anyone can join it. The use of Grindr is a renunciation of privacy.
When you make your sexual behavior public, you lose the right to complain about public commentary, especially if the behavior has negative consequences for your public role. This is the case for anyone, whether homosexual or heterosexual — let alone for priests who have taken vows that commit them to sexual abstinence, and who have been provided with employment, education and social status on the understanding that they are faithful to these vows.
Monsignor Burrill's use of Grindr was relevant to his public role. Grindr was acquired by the Chinese firm Beijing Kunlun Tech in 2016. This led the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to deem the app a national security risk on the grounds that the Chinese government could use the app to blackmail its users. The Chinese government has an interest in exerting leverage on the Catholic Church in order to stifle criticism of its religious policies and human rights abuses.
The Pillar's article associated use of Grindr and sex with minors, which caused protest. Minors frequently use Grindr. There is thus a good chance that a dedicated user of the app like Msgr. Burrill will have sexual encounters with minors. Of course, Msgr. Burrill could have been conscientious and have required everyone that he had sex with through the app to provide proof of age before getting down to business. If this is the case, he is free to make it known.
Why the united front against The Pillar story? The story indicates a change in Catholic media. At one time, Catholic authors like Flynn and Condon might have run a story like the Burrill one, but they would not have gone out looking for it. This approach would have been motivated by a belief that the leadership of the Church, although divided between liberals and conservatives, was at bottom a responsible group with a concern for the welfare of Catholics.
The death blow for this approach was dealt by the McCarrick affair. Then-cardinal Theodore McCarrick was in charge of drafting the bishops' policy on the sexual abuse of minors, although it was widely known among the American bishops he was himself a molester. When McCarrick's crimes were made public, it became clear the U.S. hierarchy was not providing responsible leadership at all, and that Catholics and the most influential segment of the American bishops are not on the same side. The powerful American bishops are on the side of the clerics who molest children and sexually abuse the weak.
Condon and Flynn have grasped this fact about the American episcopal leadership and had changed their approach to journalism accordingly. The news agencies who have tried to discredit them have pulled out all the stops to protect their masters against this new approach. Hopefully, their strategy to support the American bishops by slandering Condon and Flynn will fail.
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