The Saga of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill Is Not a Scandal. It’s a Tragedy.

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

10 replies
  1. Patty McGrath
    Patty McGrath says:

    Thanks for this compassionate insight, Frank. Msgr. Burrill was scheduled to celebrate Mass at our parish for the next two weeks and we received a flocknote saying this was cancelled. I’m sorry it was – it’s like a guilty verdict in a court of public opinion. I would have loved to attend a Mass he celebrated and wish him well. He deserves an apology from that right wing slander machine – but would probably never get one. It seems amazing to me that Catholics should think that priests’ vows must be perpetual, unlike married folks who are free to recognize the need for a divorce (28%) to live a more authentic life. “Forever” may not be realistic for priesthood either. I am grateful for however many years a priest decides to serve as a pastor/counselor/leader. For some remarkable few, it could be a lifetime. But it doesn’t make the contributions, of those who might leave the profession, less valuable and worthy of our admiration.

    Reply
    • Mags
      Mags says:

      Msgr. burrill is 100 percent a great man and priest. He brought me back to the church and God and I hold him with the ultimate respect.

      Reply
  2. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    Well said and well reasoned ,Francis DeBernardo. The case of this Msgr. who was ‘outed’ by “Catholic” sources puts me in mind of the McCarthy red scare tactics . Finger pointing is never helpful. Looking at the bigger picture , priests are compelled to clandestine activities because they / we have been told over and again that sex or sexual desire is a failing. Here, again, the Church would benefit from examining how other institutional religions deal with celibacy. It should be optional.

    Reply
  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    The monsignor should have been aware that in the contemporary world everyone’s electronic thumbprint is everywhere. There is no hiding. If he was not participating in activities his workplace would fire a teacher or organist who married a same sex partner for he should not have resigned so quickly.

    Until the hierarchy gets rid of its abuse of LGBT individuals the scandal resides with them. The USCCB is a cabal of evil minded individuals who relentlessly purge LGBT individuals as traditional sport that should have been abandoned a century ago based on science alone. Sex per se is not a sin, it is a gift from God; neither is eating food a sin. Either can be (lust or gluttony) but the format itself is not. Celibacy is a whole other abuse of the gifts of God that are imposed for no good reason. As so many have asked why can’t the leadership of the Church look more like Christ?

    Reply
  4. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Frank, thank you for speaking the truth to power. That needed to be said especially the part about changing the way priests are formed for service. Human celibacy is abnormal for most humans. Not only that, ordination of women is necessary for a healthy priesthood. Our priest recently spoke in a similar way about the USCCB’s decision to consider denying the Eucharist to certain politicians.

    Reply
  5. Ann Marie Connolly
    Ann Marie Connolly says:

    This recent story about Msgr. Burrill is a sad one, indeed. I am sorry for the invasion of his privacy (questionable journalism) and for the salacious innuendos that have caused personal shame and his ultimate resignation. And, of course, the suggestion that his (possible) gay orientation is a path to pedophilia is outrageous on many counts! Some other news sources I have read stated that Burrill has been a vocal opponent of gay rights (in the Church and in broader society). Not sure of the accuracy of these accusations, but if they are true, how sad it is that a (possibly) gay man(priest) has not been supported in his own identity in a way that would lead him to charity and generosity of spirit toward ALL. The formation system is flawed — sexuality is one aspect of every human person. I don’t hold out much hope for progress if this aspect of pastoral development is not honestly and openly addressed. If our priests (gay or straight) are to serve our diverse Church, they need to be affirmed in their own sexual orientation and gender identity.

    Reply
  6. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Do the folks who made it their mission to expose this priest intend to seek out the multitude of priests having affairs, sexually harassing and assaulting women? Not salacious enough or perhaps they’re in denial?

    Reply
  7. Eric
    Eric says:

    Monsignor Burrill should not be mistreated by anyone, he is a person. It is not my place to judge him and that I hope the best for him. There are a few priests that had inappropriate relations with the underage and that is criminal. This is not the same with Monsignor Burrill, he was on a gay dating site and going to gay bars which is not a crime.

    Reply
  8. Jay
    Jay says:

    Priests can be gay, priests can be celibate. Celibacy should be practiced like fasting. Not as a forced, permanent lifestyle. All young men masturbate, so it is prissy and ignorant to assume that priests are asexual. Testosterone makes all men want to engage in some type of sexual life…it is the reason why humans and all species reproduce and exist. No sex, no humans! Even with fasting, Humans still need to eat, otherwise it becomes suicide. All humans also need intimacy and companionship and sex. Let the priest be gay and have gay sex, as long as it is with another consenting adult. Modern technology proves that priests want and have a sexual life too – they are after all human, just like everyone else.

    Reply

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