Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Msgr. Burrill & The ‘Droit Du Monseigneur’

Does a priest have a right to seek out online anonymous gay sexual encounters privately? Catholics argue the point

It looks like many Catholics, from the progressives to the integralists, are mad at The Pillar for outing a top USCCB cleric over his alleged use of the gay hook-up app Grindr, which is used to arrange impromptu gay sexual encounters. The Washington Post surveys the reaction. Excerpts:

Is Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill a victim of both the surveillance and morality police? Or a hypocrite who had it coming? The case of the high-ranking Catholic cleric who resigned after allegedly being tracked on the gay dating app Grindr quickly became a Rorschach test Wednesday for Catholics already mired in tension over politics, theology and culture.

Burrill until Tuesday was the top administrator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He stepped down after a Catholic newsletter presented conference officials with allegations that cellphone data indicated he had repeatedly used Grindr and visited gay bars.

Catholics reacted with immediate intensity to the Pillar’s report. On Wednesday, some said they saw a story about a powerful priest violating his promises of chastity and the church’s ban on same-sex activity, while others focused on the ways digital surveillance can be used to expose someone’s private life.


Kim Daniels, a former USCCB official and Vatican adviser, said in a tweet Wednesday that the Pillar’s lack of transparency about the data and where it came from didn’t help the church, but hurt it.

“Without that information readers can’t adequately assess the story’s credibility. The end result: efforts toward increased transparency are not strengthened, they’re undermined,” Daniels wrote. “The actions alleged in the story are wrong, violating Church teachings on many levels. And this all lands as yet another gut-punch for me and so many other Catholics. That’s one reason why credibility is so important here. Without it, we’ve moved backward, not forward.”

Spence said the Pillar’s use of anonymously gathered and analyzed data is “a new and frightening development.” He compared it to tactics used in the 1950s by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others to identify suspected communists.

“I think what is going on right now is a new McCarthyism in the church,” Spence said.

But some said they trusted the Pillar’s intentions and judgment.

Janet Smith, a prominent moral theologian, in a piece Wednesday in the conservative magazine Crisis, compared the right of Catholics to know about Burrill to the right of a spouse to know about their partner cheating.

“Certainly a Bishop has a legitimate reason to know the information about his priests and so, too, in my mind, does anyone who is entrusting their immortal soul to guidance by a priest,” she wrote. Smith called such surveillance and data collection “a necessary form of accountability or ‘due diligence’. Is abuse of funds a more serious offense that the abuse of people?”

Here’s a link to Prof. Smith’s entire piece in Crisis. This is a dynamite paragraph:

Let it sink in that Burrill from 2009 until 2013 was a professor and formation director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In a lawsuit by a former seminarian, accusations are being made that sexual predation has been common for a very long time at the NAC. I think a new line of investigation has just opened up.

If Burrill is guilty of what the data indicate, then it’s important to know if he used his position at the NAC to groom others, or in some other way participated in, or turned a blind eye to, predation. It cannot be said enough: these things happen in networks! The late Richard Sipe, a sociologist who knew more about the sociology of sexually active priests that anybody, repeatedly said that the culture of sexual abuse depends on a broader culture of sexual misconduct, which is itself sustained by networks of sympathetic corrupt priests. This is one of the reasons why Janet Smith points out that Catholic seminaries routinely screen the online connections of their seminarians, looking for pornography and other signs of online sexual misconduct. By what rationalization does a senior Catholic cleric have the right to seek out gay sexual encounters on his phone without anyone else knowing about it, but Catholic seminarians do not? Is this what you call the “droit du monseigneur”?

Do Catholics want their church cleaned up, or do they not? A priest who puts a Grindr app on his phone has consented to have his data collected by Grindr, and sold. The Pillar acquired the data legally — nobody really doubts that. The question is, was it ethical. Here’s a statement J.D. Flynn, the Pillar’s editor, put out:

I honestly cannot understand why anybody who believes that priests having sex is immoral would object to what The Pillar has done. It wasn’t, by the way, like Burrill was (allegedly) having sexual relations with a regular partner. The data published by The Pillar suggest that he was having quick, anonymous sexual encounters with men. Though I suppose it could be said that he only used Grindr to entice gay men into meeting with him so he could share the Gospel with them, and call them to repentance. This is within the realm of possibility, as we have no hard evidence that the monsignor actually had sex with the men he allegedly met via the app.

A Catholic parish priest e-mails to say:

I’ve been observing some of the online kvetching about the terrible, terrible, no good “invasion“ of Msgr. Burrill’s privacy. I think, given the nature of the app and online activity, anyone moaning about “spying“ on Burrill and conjuring up images of journalists peeping through windows either doesn’t understand how these things work, or is being deliberately obtuse.
Obviously, I am not a journalist and not familiar with the canons of journalistic ethics. But I have an analogy that I think addresses the problem and might expose the real issue that the critics of The Pillar are having:
Imagine that a priest was a member and contributor to an online forum for real, actual white supremacists, and under a pseudonym posted all manner of racist garbage. And imagine that someone was able, through comparison with publicly visible online activity elsewhere, and perhaps comparison with things like email addresses, to “pierce the veil“ of the pseudonym on the racist forum, and identify with confidence the racist priest. Having been so identified, the priest was subject to appropriate discipline and public protest. If someone thinks that the above scenario and outcome would be OK, but that what happened to Burrill was beyond the pale, then that person is not being consistent. That person ought to examine himself to see if their real problem is that they don’t think what Burrill did is really that big a deal. Or that they think that priests have some kind of “right“ to secret sin.
UPDATE: A Catholic friend who works in a field that involves tech security writes to say:
As someone with a healthy awareness of surveillance capabilities and their capacity for abuse I would obviously prefer that cyber vigilantism not occur. That said, it is abundantly clear in 2021 that the Catholic hierarchy can’t or won’t take meaningful action because of the extent of the corruption, the pervasive nature of either corrupted or compromised figures at the highest levels, and the unwillingness to absorb the pain that meaningful action would require. In the absence of another Julius II to crush these modern Borgias, that leaves the faithful with either accepting the corruption of their faith, supporting select actors that they have vetted, or taking vigilante actions. Any meaningful action against the rot is going to uncover a massive amount of corrupt and overlapping networks of both homosexuals and pedophiles as well as their enablers and enough conspiracy and cover-up to satisfy any QAnon adherent. No doubt doing so would involve no small amount of damage to the credibility and integrity of the Church, though that would have to start by acknowledging homosexual networks and undercurrents that are currently considered unspeakable due to modern political correctness.
So when a modern Julius II arises to crush this group I am definitely behind him, but until then why should I get exercised about vigilantism? Again, vigilantism is something that occurs when there is a loss of legitimacy and credibility within formal structures that leaves angry and desperate people inclined towards alternative measures. It is a very ugly and very punitive and brutal thing, which is why you associate such actions with things like posses, lynch mobs, and communal violence seen in the uglier parts of the Third World. But if you don’t want to see it happen, then you develop actual and formal structures rather than polite window dressing to act on it.

For whatever it is worth, I would probably favor a temporary homosexual ban for at least a decade as the networks were being uprooted. For anyone who is seeking a celibate life while experiencing homosexual inclinations the current priesthood would seem to be the least likely place for them to avoid temptation and stay faithful. Every single revelation indicates that there are pervasive and entrenched grooming rings operating throughout seminaries irrespective of whether or not they are pedophiles with the net result being to produce priests who treat their own vows loosely. You don’t have to be a genius to understand the kind of culture that attitude creates or the implications of it.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now