Last autumn as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops actively lobbied Congress to kill a proposed national suicide hotline because it directed help to suicidal LGBTQ people, the Conference elected Jeffrey Burrill as their general secretary. He had worked as a high-level staffer since 2016. His promotion made him the highest-ranking, most powerful Catholic priest in the United States who is not a bishop.
On Inauguration Day, Burrill remained general secretary as the Conference’s senior bishop chastised President Biden for supporting LGBTQI equality, claiming the president’s policies “advance moral evils.” Many lay Catholics rolled their eyes, having long since rejected the Catholic clergy’s relentless homophobic hate speech.
Burrill said nothing.
Nobody expected him to. His colleagues knew him as a conservative and staunch traditionalist who was “all in” with Church teachings that gay people are “depraved” and “disordered” and that transgender people “annihilate nature.” He had been an enthusiastic participant for years in advancing institutional homophobia and transphobia.
He continued to administer the day-to-day work of the Conference and lead its staff as the bishops took steps to religiously punish President Biden for refusing to enforce Catholic doctrine about abortion, for refusing to make abortion a crime for all women and doctors, including those who are not Catholic.
Burrill again said nothing.
The U.S. bishops are notoriously conservative, and they chose their man well, grooming him for more power and influence in the Church as he executed their homophobic policies, including promoting an official Catholic organization called Courage that claims homosexuality is a result of mental illness and that encourages so-called conversion therapy, a practice every major mental health association in the world acknowledges is intensely harmful and likely to result in suicide attempts.
Then Burrill’s other shoe dropped. He’d apparently been using Grindr at work. Constantly. For years.
Grindr is a sex app. Men use it to meet other men for sex. Journalists at the right-wing Catholic news site The Pillar claimed to have legally purchased data Grindr sells to third-party vendors. The data included unique mobile-device ID numbers and geo-time stamps that allowed investigators to identify Burrill’s mobile phone as he used Grindr in his office, his homes, family members’ homes and on his travels.
They say that information is non-identifiable. This is another example of how it’s an utter lie. (Professor Ari Ezra Waldman)
The Pillar alleges that the general secretary of the U.S. Bishops Conference was using Grindr practically every day. That he was spending time at gay bars and at The Entourage in Las Vegas, an upscale bathhouse where wealthy gay men meet one another for casual sex. That he often used Grindr before and while driving to private residences he never visited again.
— Entourage Bathhouse LV (@GayBathHouseLV) September 23, 2019
Three disturbing stories pop out in this scandal about a homophobic gay priest
The first implicates Grindr and other tech companies that behave recklessly as they betray user privacy. The second centers around a continuing right-wing Catholic tendency to conflate gay men with pedophiles and sexual abusers. The third is the hypocrisy of homophobic Catholic clergy pushing official Church anti-LGBTQI hate speech. Let’s break each of these stories down.
1.) Privacy implications are dystopian in scale
This story is at least as worrisome as the Pegasus spyware scandal that also rocked the privacy world this week. But while Pegasus is sold to governments for tens of millions of dollars, the techniques that outed Burrill don’t require expensive software and are available to almost anyone.
The Pillar investigators were able to legally buy aggregated Grindr data from third party sources and use it to identify Burrill based on his movements. This should trouble anyone who uses a mobile device. Grindr routinely sold highly granular location and demographic data to advertising networks and analytic firms.
Pretty much every social media app on the Internet does this.
Grindr defends its privacy policies by pointing out they “anonymize” data before selling it, meaning they strip out names and phone numbers. But that didn’t help Burrill. Pillar investigators bought the data, observed that somebody was using Grindr on a unique mobile device just about every day at USCCB offices. From there, checking to see where else that unique device popped up in their data set was trivial, they correlated the device to Burrill’s homes, his family’s vacation home and to his publicly available travel records. They had their man for the nominal price of a data set.
Experts have long warned of the potential for this sort of tracking. Some say they’re surprised privacy violations like this haven’t already become common.
They warn that this is just the beginning.
“There’s an entire multi-hundred billion dollar industry of companies you’ve never heard of,” Northeastern University Professor Ari Ezra Waldman told Slate. “Their business model is collecting info from all corners of the internet and selling it to people so they can make general conclusions about a population and advertise to it. They say that information is non-identifiable. This is another example of how it’s an utter lie.”
Indeed, The Pillar suggests they have more stories on tap, more gay priests to out.
2.) Religious news sources are falsely framing this story as a fight against pedophilia and sex abuse while morally condemning LGBTQI people at large
The Pillar story itself is rather breathless, making one illogical leap after another to correlate consensual gay sexual activity with risks of predatory abuse. The authors describe Burrill as having engaged in “serial and illicit sexual activity” immediately after writing “he is widely reported to have played a central role” in coordinating the U.S. Church’s response to the ongoing clerical child sex abuse scandal.
Their plain implication is that sexually active gay men are incapable of protecting children from predators and present a heightened risk of being predators themselves.
The authors are not coy about linking Grindr to the risk of child sexual abuse. They cite three examples of priests using Grindr to meet teenagers for sex but fail to make any case that Burrill himself is attracted to minors or has any track record of predatory behavior. Instead, they write:
There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr. But any use of the app by the priest could be seen to present a conflict with his role in developing and overseeing national child protection policies.
They quote Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, to make their point more directly:
When it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence, that can become only a step away from sexual predation.
This assertion, repeated by many other Catholic publications in the past two days, shocks the conscience of LGBTQ people everywhere, many of whom work with children as teachers, social workers, and community leaders overseeing child protection policies without the least conflict with their private adult sexual lives.
Religion News Service jumped on the gay-bashing wagon fast, Steven P. Millies opining:
I am a sinner. So are you. So is Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to Burrill. Every single one of us has had a shameful moment we regret, and I suspect most of us must be caught up in cycles of sinfulness that we repeat less because we want to than because we are sinners and cannot help being sinners.
Notice how Millies appears to defend Burrill even as he heaps hate speech on LGBTQI people, calling us shameful and sinful while implying that our sexuality is regretful.
I choked on story after hateful story like his while preparing this piece, both in nominally liberal and more conservative religious publications. The Burrill scandal has prompted a tiring and toxic wave of overt homophobia from religious writers who seem more interested in targeting gay people for moral condemnation than in focusing on the hypocrisy that should be the center of this tale.
3.) Jeffrey Burrill is a hypocrite who worked to hurt LGBTQI people while living his off hours as a sexually active gay man
First, let’s shoot down a disingenuous liberal Catholic talking point. The accusations The Pillar printed are not innuendo. They are not mere gossip. Look, I’m angry Grindr sold private data, but the data is out there now and the allegation is clear: Jeffrey Burrill used Grindr for years, often every day, for its intended purpose — to have sex with other men.
Gay men don’t use Grindr to talk about the weather. They don’t use it to idly chat. They use it to have sex. That’s what it’s for. Gay men don’t go to The Entourage and other bathhouses to have a steam and a cup of tea. Gay men go the Entourage for only one reason — to have sex with other men.
That’s not innuendo. It’s reality. It’s truth.
So let’s stop playing silly games, liberal Catholic press. Jeffrey Burrill, the highest ranking Catholic priest in the United States who is not a bishop, has apparently been having sex with men for years, on purpose, on a regular basis, and often while traveling on the Church’s dime.
This while working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, arguably the most cruel homophobic organization in the United States. You don’t get more cruel, more immoral, than trying to stop a suicide hotline because it reaches out to queer people in crisis. American Catholics and Americans in general reacted with shock and horror when they learned of the moral depravity of the U.S. Catholic bishops in that episode.
But LGBTQI Americans have long understood the Conference’s moral depravity. The fact that the USCCB website (under Burrill’s direction) actively promotes Courage International’s so-called “conversion therapy” is just another example of moral depravity. PFLAG and ILGA, respected LGBTQI human rights organizations of long standing, group Courage with extremist anti-LGBTQI hate groups.
So-called “conversion therapy” hurts people. Badly. It causes suicide. Which makes the USCCB’s effort to stop suicide-prevention outreach to LGBTQI people even more despicable.
That all this morally despicable behavior happened under the watch of a sexually active gay (or possibly bisexual) man is jaw dropping. The English language has words for vicious hypocrites like Burrill, but I won’t use them here. I already have in private, and I’ll leave the color and depth of my vocabulary as an exercise for the reader.
Can we stop feeling sorry for this homophobic gay priest, please? Patheos suggests we should “feel bad” for Burrill given he was doing nothing illegal and nothing to feel ashamed of. But this overlooks the critical fact that Burrill was complicit with oppressing and persecuting LGBTQ people, including working to pass laws to hurt gay and transgender people. (LGBTQ Nation has published a summary of the USCCB’s recent homophobic track record.)
No, there’s no shame in using a gay hookup app. There’s nothing shameful about visiting gay bars and bathhouses. That goes without saying. Anyone who suggests otherwise is indulging an ancient human habit of reviling and hurting members of gender and sexual minorities.
The shame here lies in Burrill’s complicity with evil.
He is a member of a reviled sexual minority and he chose to climb into the highest ranks of an ancient organization that has been making life hell for LGBTQI people for centuries. He lived well. He enjoyed a luxurious (rent free) residence in Washington, D.C. while maintaining a luxury apartment in Wisconsin and jetting around the world on Church business.
His shame lies in his fronting for a Church that pillories LGBTQI people for engaging in the very “acts of grave depravity” he indulged in all the time. His shame lies in living with one foot in a Catholic clerical world that constantly flings hate speech at LGBTQI people even as his other foot danced in a world of gay men who know the Church is dead wrong in its baseless moral condemnation and scientifically absurd diagnoses of mental disorders.
I’m glad The Pillar exposed Burrill. It needed to be done.
I’m not happy that Grindr and other tech companies make privacy invasion easy. I’m deeply troubled by the probability that meaningful privacy is no longer possible in today’s high tech world.
I’m equally troubled by the motivations of the conservative Catholic journalists at The Pillar. I know they are engaged in a witch hunt. I know they printed their story to hurt gay people and to strengthen the false notion that gay men are likely to be predatory.
But nobody in their right mind is buying that nonsense, not outside Catholic clerical circles and small numbers of extremist lay Catholics.
Lay Catholics in the United States as a group are fed up with the hierarchy’s homophobia. Unlike members of the clergy, U.S. lay Catholics are slightly more likely than the average American to support LGBTQI equality measures like equal marriage and the proposed federal Equality Act.
It’s a mystery to me why lay Catholics keep funding the Church as it works so hard to stop equality and so hard to hurt queer people, whether those queer people be Catholic or not.
This newest exposure of extreme hypocrisy elegantly underlines how out of step the all-male, toxically homophobic Catholic clergy are with the flock they say they lead.
American Catholics are good, decent, moral people who don’t put up with injustice. The same cannot be said for their nominal leaders. This episode of hate and hypocrisy underlines that perfectly well.
Isn’t it time for the flock to fight back against the morally depraved shepherd? Isn’t it time to end the Church’s extremist anti-LGBTQI hate speech? If not now, when?
Former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist and alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, James Finn is an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, an “agented” novelist and a runner, Marine, Airman, polyglot and self-proclaimed “middle-aged, uppity faggot.” He blogs at Medium.