Some ethical questions about The Pillar’s Grindr exposé

Yesterday, The Pillar reported that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill was using Grindr to meet gay sex partners while he was general secretary for the USCCB.

The Pillar reports:

“According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 — at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities.”

The smartest response I saw to the article was a priest reminding Twitter that it’s okay to not be sure what to think about it all. That’s where I still land: I’m not quite sure. But I have a lot of questions.

People are alarmed and disgusted that someone’s phone data would be tracked and used against them. I don’t like it either, but I’m not prepared to say it’s unethical to use it, if you have a good reason, and if you’re sure you understand what the data signifies. At very least, it’s a great reminder that the best way to defend yourself against this kind of thing is, you know, don’t be gross.

Here are the questions I do have (and Damien doesn’t agree with me on all counts):

Was it necessary to make this public?

Something people ask me every single time I write about ugly stuff. There are a few reasons to make wrongdoing public: One is if the person is prominent enough and the wrongdoing is significant enough; and two is if it’s the only way to protect vulnerable people.

It was right for Burrill to lose his job. Any priest who’s soliciting sex with strangers, whether he’s a sinner struggling with a compulsion or a hypocrite unrepentantly pursing gratification, has grievously betrayed his vows. He is supposed to be a spiritual guide, and he is unfit for his office. Yes, we do hold priests to higher standards, and he held a fairly high office. (The Pillar says he “was charged with helping to coordinate the U.S. bishops’ response to the Church’s 2018 sexual abuse and coercion scandals,” but it’s not clear what that entails.)

I also believe that the fact that he was using Grindr is a problem in itself because of what Grindr is. As I understand it, the app wouldn’t be profitable if it excluded predatory relationships. This isn’t like drinking a can of Pepsi even though Pepsi is Frito and Frito in Kansas has bad labor practices; it’s more like subscribing to Playboy, but just for the articles. There are some things you just can’t separate.

At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the way the Pillar heavily implied that there was a good chance he’s a pedophile, because it’s likely that pedophiles use the app. So this is an “everyone sucks here” situation: Burrill was sleazy for using a site that facilitates predation, and The Pillar is sleazy for helping people assume, without evidence, that he’s probably a predator. 

So those are reasons that it makes sense for Burrill to lose his job. But was he prominent enough for it to be important to expose his sins? I mean … I’ve never heard of the guy before, have you? This part is iffy. 

As for protecting the vulnerable, this is not a clear cut “stop the bad man to protect the vulnerable” situation, as it would be if he had been meeting people in confession, or using the power of his office to prey on people (quite the opposite: He apparently though he could remain anonymous). So I don’t think it was necessary to make this story public to protect anyone Burrill was directly in contact with. 

What about the power of the press to exert pressure on institutions to do the right thing? 

I know very well that the Church will often not act unless it’s forced into it, and public exposure is an effective tool. Apparently, The Pillar approached the USCCB and let them know the story was in the works. The USCCB agreed to meet, got rid of the guy, and then told the Pillar, “You know what, we’ll talk some other time.” The Pillar then published the story. So in effect, this is a story about someone making a report of wrongdoing, and the USCCB responding appropriately. If the goal was to remove an unfit cleric from office (either for the sake of justice, or to protect themselves from blackmail), I’m hard pressed to say why it was necessary to go ahead with publishing, since they already accomplished what was presumably their goal. 

Or, if that wasn’t their goal, what was it? Are they going to publish stories every time someone who works for the church is caught in sin? Where is the line? I am not sure myself, and I am very curious about what the Pillar’s line is. 

And this leads us to the second main question I have: 

Did the USCCB know? The sex abuse scandal in the Church has two main components: The abuse itself, and the institutional cover-up of abuse. If it weren’t for the cover-up, the abuse wouldn’t be able to flourish. That’s why the McCarrick exposé was so especially crushing: Not only did he prey on so many people, but so many people knew he was doing it, and didn’t do anything. 

Experience tells us that someone, maybe lots of people, probably knew what Burrill was up to. If so, that was wrong, and possibly-to-probably worth writing about. But The Pillar presents no evidence that anyone at the USCCB was aware that this was happening. As they reported it, there was a sinful man doing sinful things while he was at work. The story, as reported, does not actually reveal or demonstrate any malfeasance on the part of the Church. That’s significant. It changes what kind of story it is, and it vastly changes how newsworthy it is.  

My third question is about journalistic ethics more generally, and doesn’t have to do with the nature of the sin or even the content of the story:

Who paid for it, and why does that matter?

The Pillar says “According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 — at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities.” It says “The data was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”

Our first impression upon reading the article was that someone bought the incriminating data and offered it to The Pillar. This assessment was shored up by an article we read later, which says that CNA, former employer of The Pillar’s JD Flynn, had been approached starting in 2018 by someone who had been shopping around incriminating data about clerics. CNA cited ethical concerns in the story, and didn’t accept the data. It clearly knew by some means that The Pillar intended to publish its exposé, and published its own story a few days before. 

It is possible that The Pillar wasn’t working with this same individual (and it’s possible CNA was trying to erroneously create the impression that they were), and it’s possible The Pillar independently purchased and analyzed the data. But if that were the case, why it would say it “obtained” the “commercially available” data, rather than clarifying that it bought it itself? 

Why does it matter? Reporters get tips all the time, right? Well, if The Pillar got a tip that Msgr. Burrill was up to no good, and decided to narrow in on him and buy some data to verify it, that would be slightly sketchy but possibly legitimate, depending on the significance of what they found (see my questions, above, about their goal and their mission).

But if, as seems likely, someone came to them with an already-purchased bundle of red hot data about how Burrill spent his weekend, and The Pillar simply verified it and wrote it up, that’s not actual investigative journalism. That’s performing a service for the person who spent the money to make the story happen. This is a huge ethical problem, and I’m alarmed that more people don’t realize it.

The Pillar has been presenting itself as a watchdog journalism site. But if someone else is buying information and feeding it to them, they cannot be considered objective journalists, but instead something more like partners with their source. 

Is this what happened? We don’t know, because they don’t say! Which is a problem in itself! They do not name their source, and that’s reasonable. But they don’t make it clear whether they actually even have a source, and if so, what kind of relationship the source has with the story. This is very shaky ethical ground. 

We recall that, when he was editor at CNA, JD Flynn defended running a story that devoted an astonishing eight paragraphs to the funding allegedly behind a story in The National Catholic Reporter, creating out of whole cloth the impression that journalist Jenn Morson was attacking Franciscan University at the behest of George Soros. It was complete garbage journalism, but at the time, Flynn thought it was important. So you tell me. Does funding matter? Does it affect which stories are covered and how? Perhaps Flynn’s perspective has evolved now that his work is subscriber-based. 

None of this is black and white. Despite all the hot takes on social media, it’s not a clear case of either “hooray for The Pillar for uncovering this important story” or “shame on The Pillar for engaging in this obvious sleaze.” Nothing I’ve mentioned above is a clear reason why they should or shouldn’t have written it.

But I will say this: When Damien and I are working on a story and we keep bumping up against more and more and more questions about the ethical way to approach it, we look at each other, sigh, and just walk away. A high number of questions around a story is a red flag in itself, and this story has an awful lot of questions.

I’m Medieval peasanting my way to Eucharistic Coherence

When I heard that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops planned to speak out on eucharistic coherence, my eyes bugged out. They were going to talk about something American Catholics cared about, that is pertinent to our life and world today, that is inherently important? Our U.S.C.C.B.? There are a handful of individual bishops I admire, but as a whole, the U.S.C.C.B. can be depended on to put out documents called things like “De dispositione sellarum navalium” (loosely: “On Rearranging Deck Chairs”). But a statement about eucharistic coherence sounded like they got hold of something real, something we could really use right now. I decided to pay attention.

But I have been busy, and every time I opened Twitter, I realized that more of the “Biden-Communion-U.S.C.C.B.-will they-won’t-they” discourse had gone on without me. There had been another podcast, another bit of analysis, another impassioned personal essay and countless other hot takes, and I wasn’t keeping up. I feel a sickening tug of guilt, like when you didn’t do the homework and you thought you could skate by, but the teacher just announced that the thing you didn’t read is definitely going to be on the test.

If this is you, I am here to tell you: This will not be on the test.

I am not saying that the issues of who can and cannot, should and should not receive the Eucharist aren’t important or relevant. They’re important because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and if questions about it are not relevant to us, then what possibly could be?

And it’s relevant because so many people do take their moral cues from public figures, for better or worse. Some Catholics took their cues from Donald J. Trump, and now some are taking their cues from President Joe Biden. It’s relevant because non-Catholics are learning about what the church considers important. It’s relevant because many of us are still raw after having peeled ourselves painfully away from what has become of conservatism. Many of us care fervently about protecting the lives of the unborn but also about protecting the lives of immigrants and people of color and prisoners and gay people, and we are tired of being told we have to choose one side or the other if we want to be on the side of Christ. Many of us care about the Real Presence, and because we love the Lord, we do not want to see his precious body and blood treated like a weapon or a bribe or a talking point.

Coherence is what we need, eucharistic and otherwise. This is not a coherent age. Retweets and ratios and podcasts and hot takes, yes. Banging gongs and clashing cymbals, yes. Coherence, no.

But coherence generally comes from simplicity. And simplicity comes when you cut away everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, even if it is interesting or titillating or gets you lots of clicks. So simplicity is what I’m going for. It is what I call “Medieval Peasanting.” Read the rest of my latest at America Magazine

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Image: Detail of a bas-de-page showing Dunstan healing injured peasants. Image taken from f. 197 of Decretals of Gregory IX