Questions Abound in the Wake of Msgr. Burrill’s Return to Active Ministry

In appointing him to a parish, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, Wisconsin, disclosed little about the priest’s alleged use of the Grindr ‘hook-up’ app, what treatment he might have received or what safeguards have been put into place.

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill is shown reading a tally during the U.S. bishops' June 2021 virtual assembly.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill is shown reading a tally during the U.S. bishops' June 2021 virtual assembly. (photo: Screenshot / USCCB/Youtube)

A decision to restore Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill to active ministry in his home diocese in Wisconsin, less than a year after a scandal involving his alleged use of the “hook-up” app Grindr, has raised questions about the prudence of the move and the way in which it was implemented. 

Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse told members of St. Teresa of Kolkata parish June 11-12 that Msgr. Burrill would be their new parochial administrator. He further expressed confidence in his ability to accompany them in their journey toward Christ.

However, although he said in a brief statement published on the parish website that Msgr. Burrill had most recently served the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, he did not mention the priest’s resignation last July as general secretary immediately preceding an investigative report in The Pillar. According to that report, Msgr. Burrill allegedly had engaged in inappropriate behavior and frequent use of Grindr, which describes itself as “the world’s largest social-networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people.”

The bishop’s statement also did not say what Msgr. Burrill did during an “extended leave” from active ministry other than to state he “engaged in a sincere and prayerful effort to strengthen his priestly vows” and responded favorably to every request made by Bishop Callahan and the diocese. Those requests were not specified. 

Finally, although the diocese had pledged full cooperation with the USCCB last year to investigate and address the claims against Msgr. Burrill, the statement said only that the diocese has received no allegations of illegal misconduct by him. 

Since the announcement of Msgr. Burrill’s appointment, there has been no apparent response from parishioners at St. Teresa of Kolkata. Nothing has appeared on the parish Facebook page, though a post about the appointment on the diocese’s Facebook page generated more than a dozen comments and reactions, most of them expressing surprise, anger or sadness, but none were identified as coming from a parishioner. 

Non-parishioner Monica Mohan responded to the diocese’s post with a link to an article about the appointment from LifeSiteNews, which contrasted Bishop Callahan’s support for Msgr. Burrill with his censure of Father James Altman, another priest of the diocese. Bishop Callahan removed Father Altman as pastor of St. James the Less parish and removed his priestly faculties last July after seeking to correct him privately for inflammatory commentary on multiple social-media platforms.

Mohan, of Fall Creek, Wisconsin, also mentioned the Father Altman dismissal in a letter to the La Crosse Tribune, criticizing the bishop’s handling of both it and the Msgr. Burrill appointment “A good bishop protects — is transparent,” she wrote. 

 

Incomplete Accounting

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and pastor of Holy Family Church in New York, told the Register he sees Bishop Callahan’s statement as lacking in candor and avoiding a plain accounting for the public scandal that Msgr. Burrill occasioned. It also leaves the impression, he added, that because no one sent the diocese allegations of illegal misconduct, there was nothing more to be done. 

Furthermore, he said, it raises such questions as whether an investigation was done by a qualified professional, independent expert, whether it covered the potential use of Church or USCCB funds for immoral activity and whether Msgr. Burrill sought and received professional help for a possible sexual addiction. Likewise, Father Murray said, there was no reference to the Church’s Canon 1395-2, which provides for penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, against clerics who publicly offend against the Sixth Commandment.

Absent also from Bishop Callahan’s statement, he said, is whether Msgr. Burrill will be closely monitored by a diocesan official, whether parishioners will have a way to raise concerns about his behavior and where he will be residing. 

Efforts by the Register to obtain answers to such questions about Msgr. Burrill’s appointment have been met with silence on the part of the Diocese of La Crosse as well as St. Teresa of Kolkata parish. Repeated calls and emails have not been returned. 

“The assignment of Msgr. Burrill to a leadership position of pastoral responsibility without a full accounting for what he did and without a sincere expression of public regret by Msgr. Burrill himself,” Father Murray said, “strikes me as extremely imprudent and seems to follow the all-too-familiar pattern of bishops protecting clerics known to have engaged in grave sexual immorality while asking the faithful to trust their judgment.” 

 

Clericalist Approach?

Indeed, Andrew Petiprin, who wrote about the Msgr. Burrill appointment in a recent Catholic World Report column, told the Register that such situations reinforce the perception that the Church hierarchy has a problem of clericalism. “It just seems to me that Msgr. Burrill’s bishop has really put his concern for his priests ahead of the greater good for the people in his diocese.”

A former Episcopal priest who came into full communion with the Church in 2019, Petiprin said he is speaking as a concerned layman who believes the mercy shown to Msgr. Burrill needs to be balanced with the needs of the people of God. 

He said, “I think it’s important, obviously, for his bishop to care about him and desire the best for him, but he also has a major responsibility to care for the souls of the people in his diocese and also to care about the perception of things in the eyes of the world.”

Petiprin said it’s not that some kind of rehabilitation is out of the question for Msgr. Burrill. “But it does seem a little strange that less than a year after he was exposed in a public scandal that he be returned to active ministry.”

A priest with expertise in priestly formation, ethics and canon law who asked not to be named said he was less bothered by the brevity of time between Msgr. Burrill’s USCCB resignation and his return to ministry than by the lack of information being made available about the situation. 

“It seems like the People of God are being gaslit, as though this never happened,” he said. “This was made public, and, therefore, the public needs a response from the Church as far as what happened.” 

The priest said the statement that no allegations of illegal misconduct were received indicates passivity on the part of the diocese and not that there was an investigation. 

If an investigation did take place and it identified people who were involved with Msgr. Burrill, the priest said there could be reasons to keep it quiet to protect them. However, he said, there also is an obligation to clarify that the Church does not approve of this behavior and will not sanction it, meaning some penalty was inflicted and instruments were put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. For example, he said, “I would have expected someone in authority to say that priests shouldn’t be using these apps, and the minimum would be that Msgr. Burrill has erased these apps from his phone.”

The priest also said any sense of sin seems to have been lost in the way in which Msgr. Burrill’s case has been handled. “It would be helpful to have had a statement from him saying he is sorry and that he is committed to being a faithful priest.” 

 

Therapeutic Perspective

Peter Kleponis, a licensed clinical therapist who has worked with priests, religious and seminarians and specializes in pornography addiction recovery, said he could not say whether Msgr. Burrill is being restored to ministry too soon. In some cases, he told the Register, a year of good, healthy sobriety may be enough to justify a return for someone who has struggled with sexual addiction. 

However, he said he sees several red flags in Msgr. Burrill’s case. Among these is that although the priest is not believed to have engaged in illegal activity, his alleged use of Grindr suggests a moral violation. 

“Did the diocese investigate that?” Kleponis said. “Morally, a priest who’s about chaste celibacy should not be on something like Grindr.” 

Kleponis said there also has been no indication that Msgr. Burrill received a psychological assessment, adding, “If a person is on Grindr every day, possibly there could be sexual addiction here, but that needs to be evaluated.” According to The Pillar report, a mobile device correlated to Msgr. Burrill emitted app data signals from Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019 and 2020, and an analysis showed he also visited gay bars and private residences while using the app during that time.

In being returned to ministry, Kleponis said Msgr. Burrill and his use of technology should be monitored regularly. “Where he goes and what he does needs accountability.”  

Because the availability of technology and the internet can make it easy to get involved in and addicted to pornography or apps like Grindr, Kleponis said he would like to see the Church institute more formal guidelines to help priests in such situations. 

“The Church needs some policy for helping these people,” he said. “A lot of dioceses just ship them away to a treatment center for six months, but even that is not helpful. There need to be new policies based on current research ... and every diocese needs to have a policy on how to handle these situations.” 

Helping priests does not necessarily mean they ultimately will return to ministry, because some may not be able to do so, Kleponis said, but they should not be automatically dismissed because they are identified as having such problems. 

“In my practice, I work with many priests who struggle with pornography addiction, and many of them come to me secretly. They don’t want their diocese knowing. They’re afraid of what will happen to them and afraid they will lose their ministry — and some have.” 

Nonetheless, Kleponis said he advises such priests to let their bishops know about their struggles. “It does lead to some being dismissed — and some should be. Some are so entrenched that they need to step away for a while. Some may even need inpatient treatment.”

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