“Edmund Campion (25 January 1540 – 1 December 1581) was an English Catholic Jesuit priest and martyr. While conducting an underground ministry in officially Anglican England, Campion was arrested by priest hunters…” —Wikipedia, entry for Edmund Campion (link)
Letter #60, 2021, Wednesday, July 21: Tracking
Everything about this story is sad, and nearly everything is wrong.
Yet everything about this story is also… a bit frightening.
So it needs to be told: forewarned is forearmed.
This story sets before us allegations about the sexual activities of a priest, reported by a relatively new Catholic news agency.
A sad enough story, but not the first time such a story has been told. We live in a fallen world, and we know the devil prowls about, seeking the ruin of souls. The Church seeks to save those souls, wrench them back out of the devil’s grasp, through the grace of God.
The priest in question yesterday abruptly resigned his post with the US bishops’ conference. So with that decision the story took on a certain seriousness: allegations by a news agency had led to the abrupt departure of a priest from his post.
Then emerged something new: the way the evidence in this case had been gathered.
The evidence of the alleged sexual activity had been gathered — the news agency itself revealed — by remote tracking of the priest’s phone.
In other words, everywhere the priest went, as long as he carried his phone with him, reports of his location were being sent in to a central database, and a way to access that database had been made available to the Catholic news agency.
When the Catholic news agency found that the data showed the priest had been here, and there, and in another place, at this time, and at that time, and at another time, etc., etc., etc., and when the news agency was able to cross-reference this priest’s data with other information, the news agency was able to conclude that the priest had been in places where various liaisons of a sexual nature were quite “likely” to have occurred.
No evidence of an actual occurrence has been produced.
This, quite frankly, is disconcerting.
What conclusion may one draw from this?
First, this means that the priest in this case had no privacy. The record of his movements was an open book.
Well, an open book to those who have access to the database…
But who has access to such a database?
Then, remarkably, the editors of another Catholic news agency (actually named Catholic News Agency) published a truly startling report about the first news agency’s report, revealing something quite extraordinary: that they themselves had been offered this very same location-tracking program three years ago, in 2018 — and had refused to use the program to track the movements of priests.(!)
Here is that revelation:
“The issue was first raised in 2018, when a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency.” (link)
“A Catholic tech expert who also spoke to CNA said the technology is so precise that it can provide the names and addresses of the targeted clergy and also tell what other app users he might spend time with and where their meetings take place.
“The data gathered can tell, the data specialist told CNA, “what places they frequent, such as, let’s say, a really shady part of town not consistent with a priestly life.” (…)
“He and others who spoke to CNA raised the concern that this technology could be ‘weaponized’ against bishops and priests, with the tactics justified in the name of reforming the Church. (link)
This bit of news sheds an entirely new light on this case.
A tracking software that can be used to track priests had been offered (by someone) to more than one Catholic news agency.
One agency has used the software, and exposed the activities of a priest.
Another agency has, evidently, not used the software.
But… were there other news agencies that had been offered this software?
Was anyone else using this software? (I stipulate: I was never offered this software by anybody.)
As a matter of speculation, if this software was available two years ago, might it not be that there are many news agencies, many news organizations, and of course many investigation agencies, that do also have this software, and are already using it to track the movements of priests everywhere, and not only of priests, but also of… bishops… and of cardinals… and (why not?) of ministers, rabbis, imams… and of all sorts of other leaders, in and outside of organized religion?
Then, raising the bar to another level in a final twist, one reader wrote to me, asking this question: If we link the idea of surveillance of priests to determine if they are engaging in various types of sexual misconduct to the idea of the other story we have been following in recent days, the story of the suppression of the old liturgy, do we not come spontaneously to this question: Might it not be possible that every priest who celebrates the old Latin Mass could be placed under this type of surveillance, so that all movements of such priests could be tracked, and the location of all such Masses determined by authorities?
And this question led me to think of St. Edmund Campion, who was arrested in England in 1581 for celebrating Mass in various private homes when the celebration of the Catholic Mass had been made illegal by the authorities of the time.
Have a nice day. —RM
P.S. Though it ought not need to be said, the views expressed in the stories below are those of the authors of the pieces, and do not (of course) in every case reflect my own views. I reproduce the articles as a service of information to readers, and include links to the various sources where you may go for further information. Throughout I have replaced the name of the monsignor in question with the bracket [I withhold the name]. So I never mention the monsignor’s name in this letter.—RM)
(1) The first story, from The Pillar (here is a link to the story, link)
Pillar Investigates: USCCB gen sec [I withhold the name] resigns after sexual misconduct allegations
A Pillar Investigation
By The Pillar 20 hr ago
Monsignor [I withhold the name], 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. [I withhold the name] has resigned as General Secretary of the Conference,” Archbishop Jose Gomez wrote July 20 in a memo to U.S. bishops.
“On Monday, we became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by Msgr. [I withhold the name]. What was shared with us did not include allegations of misconduct with minors. However, in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference, Monsignor has resigned effective immediately,” Gomez added.
The memo came after the USCCB and [I withhold the name] were contacted by The Pillar regarding evidence of a pattern of sexual misconduct on [I withhold the name]’s part. [I withhold the name] did not respond to questions from The Pillar before his resignation was announced to bishops.
[I withhold the name] was elected general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference in November 2020. In that role, [I withhold the name] was effectively the highest-ranking American cleric who is not a bishop.
A priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, he began to work at the bishops’ conference as associate general secretary in February 2016. In that capacity, the priest was charged with helping to coordinate the U.S. bishops’ response to the Church’s 2018 sexual abuse and coercion scandals.
But an analysis of app data signals correlated to [I withhold the name]’s mobile device shows the priest also 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 [I withhold the name] 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.
[I withhold the name], then second-in-command at the conference, is widely reported to have played a central role in coordinating conference and diocesan responses to the scandals, and coordinating between the conference and the Vatican.
Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.
On June 20, 2018, the day the McCarrick revelations became public, the mobile device correlated to [I withhold the name] emitted hookup app signals at the USCCB staff residence, and from a street in a residential Washington neighborhood. He traveled to Las Vegas shortly thereafter, data records show.
On June 22, the mobile device correlated to [I withhold the name] emitted signals from Entourage, which bills itself as Las Vegas’ “gay bathhouse.”
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 data 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.
The Pillar correlated a unique mobile device to [I withhold the name] when it was used consistently from 2018 until at least 2020 from the USCCB staff residence and headquarters, from meetings at which [I withhold the name] was in attendance, and was also used on numerous occasions at [I withhold the name]’s family lake house, near the residences of [I withhold the name]’s family members, and at a Wisconsin apartment in [I withhold the name]’s hometown, at which [I withhold the name] himself has been listed as a resident.
The Pillar approached USCCB officials last week, offering to present findings regarding personnel misconduct to USCCB leadership during an off-the-record meeting before publication, and then allowing the conference time to formulate its internal response.
The conference initially scheduled a meeting with The Pillar for Monday, July 19, but on Sunday the conference cancelled the meeting, and said it would only respond to written questions, which The Pillar submitted late Sunday night, requesting a response by Monday afternoon.
The USCCB asked for additional time to respond, and The Pillar offered again a willingness to meet, while agreeing to delay publication in order for conference leaders to devise their response. The conference sent on Tuesday morning responses to questions from The Pillar and requested a meeting Tuesday afternoon for further information, in order to investigate the claims against [I withhold the name] — the same information which The Pillar had planned to convey at the initially scheduled meeting.
Bishops were notified before the USCCB’s Tuesday afternoon meeting with The Pillar that [I withhold the name] had resigned.
Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”
Calling it “obviously a scandal” that a cleric would use location-based hookup apps, Berg said there is “a real disconnect between the appearance of a man who presumably is earnestly striving to live the life of chastity, when it becomes glaringly evident that he is dramatically failing at that because he’s gone to hookup apps to look actively for sexual partners — that itself is an enormous scandal.”
In his experience in formation and religious life, Berg said that “when it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence,” that can become “only a step away from sexual predation.”
The issue is compounded when a cleric in a position of ecclesiastical authority is found to “engage in a double life,” Berg said.
“That almost always impacts the lives of other people around them because deception breeds deception breeds deception.”
The use of location-based hookup apps has in recent years presented challenges to the Church’s child protection efforts.
There is no evidence to suggest that [I withhold the name] 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.
An Ohio priest will enter a guilty plea to federal child pornography and exploitation charges, after he was indicted last year for numerous counts of child sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child pornography charges. The priest, Fr. Robert McWilliams, used Grindr to meet a 15-year-old boy whom he paid for sex on multiple occasions. McWilliams also posed as a woman on social media to meet minor male victims, some of whom were parishioners, whom he coerced into sending sexually explicit photos and videos. The priest subsequently used the photos, and the threat of blackmail, to coerce minors into sending additional photos and videos.
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.
The age of consent varies among states. In 13 states the age of consent is 18, but in many others, including Nevada and Maryland, it is 16. In the Church’s penal law, a minor is classified as anyone under the age of 18, and sexual contact below that age is treated as a reserved delict, or major crime, in canon law.
The Grindr app says it does not permit minors to use the platform, and it requires users to input a date of birth while creating a profile. But, beyond a user-supplied date of birth, the app does not require users to prove they are over 18.
In fact, most companies that own dating and hookup apps “are not doing anything for age verification,” Dani Pinter, senior legal counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told The Pillar.
While technology exists to verify the ages of app users easily, most hookup apps “don’t ask for ID for any of the dating apps. I mean, you just check a box or enter a birth date, which you can fake. They don’t check,” Pinter said.
Failure to ensure that children aren’t permitted to use hookup apps and other online sites used by adults leads to the exploitation, extortion, and trafficking of minors, she added.
Even on apps and social media platforms “where it’s pretty clear that commercial sex acts are happening,” Pinter said, “they don’t verify age.”
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation lobbies and litigates to hold tech companies to a higher standard.
But Pinter said it’s an uphill battle, and that, in her view, tech companies place profit ahead of stopping the potential victimization of children.
“The tech industry writ large, including apps and social media platforms, operate on volume and definitely put profits over people,” she said.
Because of loose federal regulations, “they’re not even worried about the consequences.”
Among those consequences, Pinter said, is the widespread grooming of minors by adults on social media, dating, and location-based hookup apps, extortion schemes, and commercial sex trafficking of minors through location based hookup apps.
The use of location-based hookup apps by minors is a growing phenomenon.
In a 2018 Northwestern University study of 14 to 17 year old males who identify as gay or bisexual, more than half of participants said they used hookup apps for the purposes of meeting partners. Nearly 70% of adolescent participants who said they used such apps did so in order to “meet men in person for sex,” the study concluded. Fifty-one percent of the adolescent participants endorsed using Grindr, and overall, more than a quarter of the study’s adolescent participants said they had had sex with a partner met through an app.
Jack Turban, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, co-published a paper this year which argued that location-based hookup apps “facilitate age-discordant sexual relationships between adolescent and adult partners,” which can be harmful to minors.
“Sex with older adults can…lead to other power dynamics that increase the possibility of physical harm and a pressure to conceal that harm.”
Turban estimates that about 25% of gay and bisexual adolescent males use location based hookup apps like Grindr. Those apps, Turban told WGBH this month, create “an easy place for sexual predators to look for these kids.”
And because minors are able to use location-based hookup apps despite their adults-only policies, it is possible that an app user could be in contact with a minor through a hookup app even without intending to do so.
While a person who engages sexually with a minor unknowingly might escape state criminal charges, a cleric in that situation would likely still face serious ecclesiastical discipline. According to the provisions of a canon law, a priest in possession of child pornography can be punished by the Vatican with laicization – dismissed from the clerical state.
In 2019, South Carolina priest Fr. Raymond Flores was arrested after exchanging sexually inappropriate photos with a minor. But because the priest believed the minor was actually 18, he was not charged with a crime. The priest has not been returned to ministry, and is reportedly undergoing a canonical investigation.
In addition to priests and deacons who have committed crimes against minors using hookup apps, a Pennsylvania priest was criminally charged after he was found to have stolen almost $100,000 from the parish where he was assigned as pastor. The priest gave at least some of the money to men he met on Grindr, according to media reports, and may have used some to help fund the purchase of a vacation home.
Conference officials told The Pillar Tuesday that to the best of their knowledge, there were no red flags or notes of concern or caution about [I withhold the name] at the time he was hired in 2016 to work at the USCCB.
The 2018 McCarrick scandal, in which the former cardinal was found to have sexually abused, coerced, and manipulated minors, seminarians, and young priests, has prompted contentious discussion about how McCarrick was able to occupy escalating positions of responsibility in the Church while engaged in serial sexual misconduct.
Within that discussion has been fierce disagreement about the extent to which sexually active priests and bishops in positions of authority have enabled, shielded or protected the activity of other sexually active clerics, including those whose conduct is abusive or coercive.
Psychotherapist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and advocate for the victims of clerical sexual abuse, wrote to San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy in 2016, warning him about networks of protection and tolerance among sexually active clerics, especially those in positions of authority and influence.
“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,” Sipe wrote to 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.”
Sipe’s letter also included a warning about McCarrick, which went seemingly unheeded.
Fr. Berg told The Pillar that serial sexual misconduct on the part of clerics, especially those in leadership positions, causes “scandal and confusion, even for other priests. It’s always particularly hard, a punch in the gut, because the hypocrisy is particularly painful and particularly scandalous. And what it also breeds is cynicism. You can breed discouragement, you can breed the idea that this system is so beyond broken why are we even trying? And we forget about the hundreds of folks who are doing their work heroically in many ways to serve the Church in those capacities.”
“There is no such thing as solitary sin, because we are members of the mystical body. Think of the proverbial pebble thrown into the pond; there’s always a ripple effect from our sinfulness. So when serious moral failures occur among the clergy, they really demand an answer from the shepherd precisely because they’re held to a different standard because we’ve embraced a particular pursuit of the holy life,” Berg added.
In November 2020, [I withhold the name] was elected by the U.S. bishops to a five-year term as the conference’s general secretary. As general secretary, [I withhold the name] “coordinates all administrative matters of the Conference and is responsible for the coordination of the work of the Conference Committees and staff. He likewise directs and coordinates the planning and operational activities of the various secretariats and offices in support of the work of the Conference,” according to a USCCB press release.
In 2016, “as associate general secretary at the time, Monsignor [I withhold the name] was part of the Conference’s multi-disciplinary team that supported the response of the bishops to revelations made in 2018,” the conference told The Pillar on Tuesday.
Before [I withhold the name] began working at the USCCB in 2016, he was a parish pastor and high school chaplain, and worked for four years, from 2009 until 2013, as a professor and formation director at the Pontifical North American College, a U.S. seminary in Rome. [I withhold the name] was ordained a priest in 1998.
It is not clear whether [I withhold the name] could face canonical discipline for engaging in a pattern of high-risk sexual behavior while he occupied high-level positions in the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Father Michael Fuller, who was previously an associate general secretary, will serve as the USCCB’s general secretary until a permanent replacement for Burrill can be elected.
(2) The second story, from Catholic News Agency (here is a link to the story being carried by Catholic World Report, link)
Concerns raised about using surveillance technology to track clergy
July 19, 2021 Catholic News Agency
Denver Newsroom, Jul 19, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).
The prospect of private parties using national security-style surveillance technology to track the movements and activities of bishops, priests, and other Church personnel is raising concerns about civil liberties, privacy rights and what means are ethical to use in Church reform efforts.
The issue was first raised in 2018, when a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency.
This party claimed to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular “hook-up” apps, such as Grindr and Tinder, and to pinpoint their locations using the internet addresses of their computers or mobile devices.
The proposal was to provide this information privately to Church officials in the hopes that they would discipline or remove those found to be using these technologies to violate their clerical vows and possibly bring scandal to the Church.
CNA and others at the time declined this party’s offer, but there are reports this week of a similar scheme targeting allegedly active homosexual priests.
The U.S. government’s widespread use of surveillance technology to monitor individuals has been widely known since the 2013 revelations of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
And while there are reports of private corporations using similar techniques to keep track of employees, this is thought to be the first proposal to apply such measures in the Church.
“Basically, this technology is capable of pinpointing individuals who have downloaded a ‘gay app,’ finding out how much they are using it, and then figuring out, thanks to the geolocation technology, if they live at a seminary, or work at a parish or a major Catholic organization,” said one Catholic specialist on digital technology and data gathering, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A Catholic tech expert who also spoke to CNA said the technology is so precise that it can provide the names and addresses of the targeted clergy and also tell what other app users he might spend time with and where their meetings take place.
The data gathered can tell, the data specialist told CNA, “what places they frequent, such as, let’s say, a really shady part of town not consistent with a priestly life.”
CNA also spoke with some Catholics who were originally approached in 2018.
Like CNA, they were offered specific names of high-profile Catholic personalities as “proof” that the data had been gathered and could prove scandalous.
The party presenting the data claimed to have the best interest of the Church at heart in offering the data to Catholics. He voiced fears that such information could wind up in “the wrong hands,” and be used to blackmail Church officials or otherwise hurt the Church.
CNA spoke to a moral theologian familiar with the moral challenges posed by emerging technologies. He acknowledged that giving the data to faithful concerned Catholics might enable them to urge bishops to “do something about the gravely sinful and potentially scandalous behavior of some of their priests or seminarians.”
But, he added, “what happens if those bishops don’t do anything, or even worse, what if they let the individuals in question know they are being tracked and just simply let them take digital counter-measures,” such as using disposable mobile devices that are harder to track.
He and others who spoke to CNA raised the concern that this technology could be “weaponized” against bishops and priests, with the tactics justified in the name of reforming the Church.
Profound moral and legal questions have been raised by government surveillance, which is supposed to be authorized only in cases of clear threats to national security and carried out under strict supervision by government courts.
“Since this information already exists, it is clearly preferable that it is in Catholic hands, assuming that they are motivated by a profound spirit of charity and concern for the wellbeing of the Church,” said the moral theologian, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“The big question is if this information should be available at all, considering that it is hard to make the case that it was acquired in a completely legal and moral manner.”
(3) The third story, from Religious News Service (here is a link to the story, link)
The Pillar investigation of Monsignor [I withhold the name] is unethical, homophobic innuendo
The hook on which this story hangs is a long-discredited link between sexual abuse and homosexuality.
The Pillar published an investigation of Monsignor [I withhold the name], largely based on his phone’s location data.
July 20, 2021
By Steven P. Millies
(RNS) — Even during a period when the bombs dropping on American Catholics fall with escalating and increasingly destructive frequency, the publication of an “investigation” of Monsignor [I withhold the name], the now-former general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, blasts a crater worth crawling down into for a forensic examination.
There are reasons to think it heralds a new and even uglier era in American Catholicism.
As Catholics were still reeling from Pope Francis’ abrogation Friday (July 16) of his predecessor’s guidance on the traditional Latin Mass, Summorum Pontificum (indeed, while this author was struggling to finish an article about that event), The Pillar, a Catholic publication, released what it called “an investigation” in which data identifying [I withhold the name]’s phone seemed to indicate he had frequently used Grindr, a popular dating app in the gay community, and that he had left geolocation tracks to and from gay clubs.
That is all we really learned from The Pillar’s “investigation.” And, here is an important place to pause.
I am a sinner. So are you. So is Monsignor [I withhold the name]. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to [I withhold the name]. Every single one of us has had a shameful moment we regret, and I suspect most of us must be caught up in cycles of sinfulness that we repeat less because we want to than because we are sinners and cannot help being sinners.
Like anyone else, [I withhold the name]’s sins are between him and God. Like any other priest, we can say his bishop belongs in that conversation too. But unless 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.
I am not sure what the investigators at The Pillar believe. I feel comfortably sure that before they embarked on their “investigation,” they must not have thought about the Code of Canon Law, which states, “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.”
They must also not have thought about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says, “everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” because “detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.” I can see plainly they did not heed St. Paul, who pointed the finger at himself as a sinner (1 Timothy 1:15) before pointing to others.
Whatever we may say of their practice of Catholicism, The Pillar’s investigators paid little heed also to the canons of ethics for journalists.
How did they get their story? The Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics encourages journalists to “avoid using undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information” and admonishes that “Pursuit of the news is not a license for … undue intrusiveness.”
What story did they get here? That [I withhold the name] might have broken his vow of chastity and (consensually) used other people for impersonal sex?
The Code of Ethics also tells journalists to “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.” And perhaps more importantly, it says, “avoid stereotyping.” There we also need to pay some attention.
The Pillar has less gotten hold of a story than it has published an innuendo.
And, the innuendo should worry us.
The Pillar writes that the data it has from [I withhold the name]’s phone “suggest that he was … engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity,” at the same time he was coordinating responses to the sex abuse crisis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Although Pillar acknowledges “there is no evidence to suggest that [I withhold the name] was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr,” the article goes on in the same paragraph to say his use of the app presents a conflict of interest in his role responding to sex abuse because such apps are sometimes used to solicit or traffic minors.
A few paragraphs earlier the article quotes another priest seeming to make a similar leap regarding [I withhold the name]’s behavior: that “regularly and glaringly failing to live continence” can become “only a step away from sexual predation.”
That equivalence is the ugliest part — conflating consensual sexual behavior (if Burrill even was part of any, which we do not know) with sexual abuse.
This is the hook on which the “story” hangs, a long-discredited link between sexual abuse and homosexuality. It is hard to call that something other than a slur and a sin against the LGBTQ+ community.
Not to mention, the article’s allegations, if true, “out” [I withhold the name]’s sexuality without his consent — a widely condemned practice.
And, all of that is a bit much to take. But I fear in fact there is something worse.
I agree with what Monsignor Kevin Irwin wrote today in the National Catholic Reporter, that Pope Francis last week unmasked “the silent schism that has taken place and continues in the American Catholic Church.”
We Catholics have been at each other’s throats for decades, mostly quietly and with some veneer of restraint. The façade has been falling, and those days might be over.
Now, The Pillar has opened the way further with this no-holds-barred exposé.
I do not say this idly.
After mere hours, the comments on The Pillar’s tweet of the story already see people enthused about going after “bishops … engaged in questionable activity,” and asking “what the laity should be doing (to) shine a light into all these dark corners.”
We saw centuries ago what Christians — unburdened by their Christianity — in their conflicts with other Christians can look like. I fear we are seeing it again. That is what schism brings. That is where the spirit of division leads.
Pope Francis was not wrong to unmask what already is underway, but The Pillar is wrong to push this spirit of division even further along with what I only can call the worst sort of tittle-tattle tabloid journalism.
And, I fear we have not yet seen the worst.
A long ugly season awaits American Catholics. No one is safe and — it seems — all is permitted.
(Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center, at Catholic Theological Union. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)