A theologian has described the allegations that led a top administrator at the U.S. bishops’ conference to resign as “unethical, homophobic innuendo” that began a “long ugly season” for the nation’s Catholics.
On Tuesday, news broke that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill resigned as general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The resignation occurred after a right wing website, The Pillar, claimed it had data proving the priest used the gay dating app Grindr and had visited gay bars (Grindr has denied that it would be possible to use app data this way). To be clear from the outset, there are no charges that Burrill ever engaged in abusive behavior against anyone, nor proof he engaged in sexual activity of any sort.
Barring those on the far right wing, Catholics from across ideological and theological spectra expressed outrage and alarm about The Pillar’s story. Dr. Stephen Millies, a theologian, took to National Catholic Reporter to examine this event which, in his words, “heralds a new and even uglier era in American Catholicism.”
Part of Millies’ analysis focused on the homophobic nature of The Pillar’s attack against Burrill. The theologian writes:
“Although Pillar acknowledges ‘there is no evidence to suggest that Burrill 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 Burrill’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’ Burrill’s sexuality without his consent — a widely condemned practice.”
There are other flaws Millies’ highlights. He cites violations by The Pillar’s editors, both well known right wing and anti-gay figures, of multiple sources of authority. In violation of the Code of Canon Law, the editors “harm illegitimately the good reputation” of a person and violate his privacy. The editors violate The Society for Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics surrounding how investigations occur, sources used, and ends attained. And, stepping into the realm of sin perhaps, the editors violate the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s exhortation to not practice “detraction and calumny.”
Millies continues with a warning about the way this story from The Pillar “has opened the way further with this no-holds-barred exposé.” He concludes:
“I do not say this idly. . .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 [with his motu propio Traditionis custodes last week] 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.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, Fr. James Martin, SJ, also warned against what this incident could devolve into:
“‘Priests should obviously keep their promises of celibacy. But Catholic journalists should not use immoral means to spy on priests. . .Because what comes next? Spying on Catholic school teachers? Spying on parishioners? And where does it end — when we have a church where no one has ever sinned? The church will be empty.'”
The implications of this incident for Msgr. Burrill, The Pillar, the USCCB, and the U.S. faithful will be many, and most remain to be seen. This event is a new phase in ecclesial polarization. It could indeed be quite ugly. One impact already being felt is the harm such nasty behavior does to gay priests, brothers, and deacons. Nearly all of these men, who may comprise the majority of clergy and religious, faithfully and fervently serve the church each day. But, as happened in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, they too frequently become scapegoats and targets. Moving forward, Catholics need to reject firmly and publicly the homophobia that undergirds such behavior and allegations. And especially right now, we need to support the gay priests and religious in our lives.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 22, 2021