The story of high-ranking priest Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, who is accused of using a gay dating app and frequenting gay bars, continues to expand. When the story broke last week, I thought it would disappear overnight. It seemed to be a gossipy, salacious story that makes burning headlines then tends to fizzle out quickly.
But the story persists into its second week, fueled by questions of journalistic ethics, use of private data, and, of course, prurient interests. A news source which calls itself Catholic felt it was doing the right thing to invasively breach a priest’s private life and irresponsibly report on it, seeking to maximize this priest’s humiliation and to conflate homosexuality with the abuse of children (though no such connection exists, nor are such claims made of the monsignor). Where is the value in such an investigation other than to manufacture a scandal?
Rather than a scandal, this story is a tragedy. And the tragic element of it is not being addressed.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the accusations against Msgr. Burrill are true. For some, that information seems to give them license to castigate all gay priests, all priests, all LGBTQ people. At the very least, it is told as a story of moral failure and duplicity. The Catholic Church is seen as a victim of an evil and selfish soul who only sought his own pleasure.
I disagree with that characterization. I think Msgr. Burrill is very much a victim here. This story highlights the personal and institutional danger that the Catholic hierarchy’s homophobia causes.
Whenever a story about a priest’s clandestine relationship or sexual activities breaks, it is often viewed by many Catholics as a scandal. And if those activities involve the gay community, it only seems to magnify the sense of scandal in some people’s eyes. It always surprises me that people are shocked that priests have sometimes sought sexual connection. Are there any human beings who haven’t ever done something out of the need for love of which they would be ashamed if these acts or desires were exposed to the public? I think not.
I’ve met scores of gay priests through my work at New Ways Ministry, and most are leading lives of faith and service, and are faithful to the promises that they made at ordination. However, many of them also have stories of intense struggle of coming to terms with their sexuality. Most were formed in a seminary system that had a simple rule for how to deal with sexual feelings: ignore them. And that same system had an even stronger rule for men who thought they might be gay: be quiet.
What has been the end product of a system with rules like these? A lot of men who have had to struggle with confusion, fear, shame, and secrecy. Ecclesial pressures prevented them from understanding, accepting, and affirming their sexual identities. Many have had the opportunities through supportive family, friends, counseling, and prayer to integrate their sexuality in holy ways within their celibate lifestyle.
Unfortunately, however, others have not. Is it any surprise then that some of these men will turn to situations, people, and electronic resources that are not socially acceptable? Without more substantial and healthy ways to deal with their sexuality, what else is left to these men? They have not failed the church. The church has failed them.
If the allegations against Burrill are true, then the institutional church bears more responsibility for his actions than he does because the institution has created an environment of silence, shame, and oppression, which prevents priests from developing into more integrated people. As long as the Vatican and bishops continue to denigrate and oppress gay priests, these men are not going to be able to live lives free of fear, shame, and secrecy. As a result, instead of integrating their sexuality in healthy and holy ways, they will end up seeking outlets that are less healthy and holy.
I am surprised that anyone is still shocked at the news that a priest, even a high-ranking one, has possibly committed inappropriate sexual behavior. Do we think these men are built like angels? Let’s also remember that Burrill’s purported offenses—using a dating app and frequenting bars—are not behaviors that are exclusively gay. How many times have we heard stories of priests with lovers or who have solicited sex workers of various genders?
The story is so old and so commonplace by now that we should not succumb to the scandal-mongers. Instead, a story like this should be a wake-up call to church leaders to reform, if not the priesthood, at least the formation processes that priests undergo. And it should remind church leaders that they need to start recognizing that gay men are not an aberration or moral failure, but are human beings like their heterosexual counterparts, who have the same needs to love and be loved, and to affirm their sexuality as the blessing from God that it is.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 28, 2021