Msgr. Burrill’s Resignation and the Surveillance Age: 5 Points to Consider

COMMENTARY: No harm, no foul may apply in sports. No crime, no foul does not apply in the life of the Church.

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill reads a tally during the USCCB June meeting.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill reads a tally during the USCCB June meeting. (photo: USCCB/Youtube)

The resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is another gut-punch for Catholics. That sin abounds is old news — and grace abounds all the more, St. Paul reminds us — but still the whole matter stings.

There are at least five important matters raised by the Burrill resignation.


Digital Surveillance 

Msgr. Burrill resigned after The Pillar Catholic news website gathered data that showed that Msgr. Burrill’s mobile phone was used to access Grindr, a “hook-up” app that puts users in contact with others in the same location desiring anonymous sexual encounters. Grindr bills itself as “the largest social media network for gay, bi, trans and queer people.” The Pillar obtained the tracking data, which is commercially available and is gathered by Grindr; users give Grindr permission to track them in order to find available partners nearby.

The Pillar concluded that the tracking data constituted “evidence of a pattern of sexual misconduct.”

The Pillar “de-anonymized” the data to show that Burrill was using the app in various places, including a “gay bathhouse” in Las Vegas. The Pillar’s methods are not illegal, but have raised ethical concerns. Critics of The Pillar story did not coincide neatly with conservative/progressive divisions on other issues.

Alejandro Bermudez of Catholic News Agency reported that he had turned down offers to use such data in 2018, and worried such techniques could be used not to expose immorality, but to monitor innocent priests for nefarious purposes.

Jesuit Father James Martin, who knows “hundreds of gay priests,” wondered about a “witch hunt” on social media

“This is a disgrace: spying on bishops and priests to see if they’re being chaste and celibate,” Father Martin tweeted. “Of course it’s aimed at gay priests, and ‘gay apps,’ which shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s part of the ongoing witch hunt against gay priests.”

The Msgr. Burrill investigation only established use of the Grindr app, not that he engaged in any immoral sexual encounters. Msgr. Burrill made no statement about the reporting, nor the implication that he was, for several years, engaged in an ongoing pattern of casual sexual encounters.

Especially in an age of digital tracking and omnipresent security cameras, a priest has extra reasons to be faithful to the requirements of Christian discipleship and his priestly promises. Not only God is watching. 

There is also more routine surveillance, too. Chancery officials who investigate allegations of sexual abuse increasingly report that surveillance photographs and videos are part of the case file.


Private life vs. Secret Life

Was Msgr. Burrill’s privacy breached? That is the question put by those who claim that The Pillar violated journalistic norms.

A priest is entitled to a private life, but not a secret life, much less a double life. It is not a distinction easy to define. Where a priest goes on vacation may well be part his private life, no business of his parishioners. That privacy does not entitle him to secrecy about behavior contrary to the priestly life.

Msgr. Burrill’s case is a relatively easier case, as no one defends the behavior the surveillance revealed. There is no reason for a priest to use Grindr. It facilitates behavior all moral traditions condemn as immoral — and not only for clergy.

But there will be more difficult cases, and the concerns raised by the critics will require some careful thinking. 

Where does a private life become a secret life? Alcohol? Gambling? Drugs? Lavish spending? Or aspects of pastoral life that might take one into gray areas of the law, such as working with youth enticed by gangs?

In an age when employers are able to keep a digital eye on their employees, both at work and at home, it is not only an issue in the Church. The Pillar’s reporting techniques, perhaps the first use of such methods by a Catholic media outlet, reflects a model for “de-anonymizing” that will lead to political scandals in the near future.

What Sen. Joe Biden did to Judge Robert Bork 34 years ago became a verb: “to Bork” a candidate through scurrilous distortions of his record. Watch for many political actors to follow these ground-breaking techniques “to Burrill” their political rivals.


Sin vs. Crime

The USCCB was careful to note that there were no allegations of any sexual activity with minors. Actually, The Pillar report did not contain any evidence of sexual activity at all; only use of an app geared toward such.

Several commentators were keen to make a distinction between a crime and a sin. The two things are distinct. Sexual relations with a minor is both a sin and a crime. Sexual relations with an adult outside of marriage is a sin, but not a crime. The implication by some is that sins are not journalistic fodder, but crimes are. 

Again, there are complexities. It’s not a crime to be rude and abrasive, but it can be terribly damaging in a parish if the pastor treats the parishioners that way. And there are crimes — sometimes of an administrative or regulatory nature — that have little impact on priestly ministry.

Bishops have to sort out crimes and sins; sometimes the latter are worse than the former.

No harm, no foul may apply in sports. No crime, no foul does not apply in the life of the Church.


Civil Crimes vs. Canonical Crimes

There is a distinction between a civil crime and what is a crime (“delict”) under canon law. Sexual abuse of minors is both a civil crime and canonical delict. Consensual sexual relations outside of marriage is not a civil crime; it may be a canonical delict for a priest.

The category of canonical delicts has been growing in recent years due to the expanding definition of sexual abuse. For priests, sexual activity that involves “abuse of office” or “abuse of power” is now treated like the sexual abuse of a minor — a canonical crime with severe penalties.

One of the unintended consequences of the new delicts is that almost any sexual activity between priest and adult parishioner is now a canonical crime. It seems impossible for an abuse of office not to be involved. 

For example, it is not uncommon for romantic sparks to arise in counseling relationships, and sometimes a sexual relationship may develop. Even if consensual and fleeting, that “abuse of office” and “abuse of power” is now a serious canonical crime that could see a priest out of ministry permanently.

That leaves the curious situation that anonymous sexual encounters, even serial ones, may not be canonical delicts, no matter how sinful they are. No abuse of office or power is involved, especially if the other party involved does not even know the man is a priest, or even who he is. In such cases, a priest guilty of a gravely sinful double life may not be guilty of a canonical crime. A priest guilty of a less grave occasional sin might be.


Bishop Callahan in the Crosshairs

Msgr. Burrill’s resignation from his senior post at the USCCB means that, in effect, the USCCB is finished with him. Whatever he did or did not do, the most serious penalty available — dismissal — has already been effected by the resignation.

It is Msgr. Burrill’s ordinary, Bishop William Callahan of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, who will have to decide now what investigation and possible penalties, if any, are administered.

Bishop Callahan finds himself in an extremely delicate position. He recently removed Father James Altman as pastor of his parish, and denied him faculties to celebrate the sacraments. The issue was Father Altman’s outspoken condemnation of the Democratic Party and his aggressive comments against the U.S. episcopate, whom he has called a “brood of vipers.”

Although Msgr. Burrill’s situation is unrelated to Father Altman’s actions, that the general secretary of the USCCB may be guilty of “a pattern of sexual misconduct” will likely confirm in the minds of some that Father Altman is on to something in his scathing attacks on the credibility of the American bishops.

More to the point, if Bishop Callahan does not subject Msgr. Burrill, as different as their canonical cases may be, to the same severe restrictions he placed upon Father Altman, it may confirm the suspicions of those who think that justice in the Church is applied in an uneven and unfair fashion. 

Bishop Callahan is now in a position that — pending his own investigation of The Pillar’s reporting — if he does not treat Msgr. Burrill more severely than Father Altman, his own credibility may be severely damaged. Aside from the personal humiliation he has suffered, Msgr. Burrill may not be seen for quite some time.