ROME – Easily the most talked-about development in American Catholicism over the past week has been the resignation of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill as the Secretary General of the US Bishops Conference, after the new Catholic media outlet Pillar obtained data from his phone suggesting Burrill had visited gay bars, private residences for single men and even a notorious sauna in Las Vegas while he was serving the conference.
The episode has generated tremendous controversy, not only about Burrill’s behavior but about data privacy and the ethics of paying for supposedly confidential information on someone and then broadcasting it to the world.
Pillar was at it again yesterday, publishing a new report that the Archdiocese of Newark will be investigating information presented by Pillar indicating the use of hookup apps, both gay and straight, in ten different rectories and clerical residences.
Because the data only establishes location and app use, not sexual activity, and because Pillar so far has not disclosed where it’s obtaining this data or how it was confirmed, there’s also a debate about how sure a news outlet needs to be before publishing such a report. (A statement about Burrill’s resignation didn’t address the charges, merely indicating that he stepped down to avoid becoming a distraction.)
For what it’s worth, which probably isn’t much, as an editor I wouldn’t have run the original Burrill story based on the information it contains.
First of all, the secretary general of a bishops’ conference doesn’t exactly have his finger on the button. Yes, he’s a public figure, but at a low level and therefore the bar should be higher to compromise his privacy, especially in a way certain to damage his career and soil his reputation. Second, even though geolocation data is suggestive, it’s not conclusive, and I would have wanted to seek secondary confirmation. While I don’t consider an independent news outlet to be bound by the rules of the Catholic Church, I do consider us bound by the canons of good journalistic tradecraft.
Nobody, however, is paying me to make editorial decisions for anybody else, so what I would have done doesn’t really matter.
No doubt the rights and wrongs will be discussed for some time. Instead, here I’ll sketch three plausible outcomes from the Pillar episode, designed to be descriptive rather than taking sides.
Training priests for ‘The Truman Show’
When I first arrived in Rome more than twenty years ago, a new Italian friend suggested we drive to his small village, about an hour outside the city, over the weekend because there was going to be a party. On the way I asked what we were celebrating, and my new friend’s answer was matter-of-fact.
“Oh,” he said, “the priest’s girlfriend had a baby.” He was totally serious.
Back then, such chapters of a priest’s private life weren’t considered fair game for reporters, especially in rural Italy with its culture of deference to clergy. No news outlet announced that this priest had fathered a child, and most people I knew saw it as a matter between him, his girlfriend and his parishioners.
The clerical sexual abuse crisis has eroded that climate of discretion, and the Pillar report is a logical extension of the new world in which clergy now find themselves. You can debate the ethics as much as you like, but the raw reality is that if it’s technically possible to obtain data revealing a priest’s secrets, it will happen.
The terms “priest” and “private life” no longer belong in the same sentence unless they’re joined by a negative, as in, “does not have.”
People responsible for training future priests, whether in seminaries or religious houses of formation, or some other venue, may well decide to incorporate background on data privacy into their curricula, making sure future clergy know what they’re up against.
If I were doing seminary formation right now, I’d probably organize a movie night and have them watch “The Truman Show,” the 1998 Jim Carrey film about a man who’s the star of a 24/7 reality show in which the whole world can see and hear everything he does, only he doesn’t know it.
Basically, every single priest today is the pastor of Seahaven, the fictional town in the film, where someone is always watching.
Great shocks to the system sometimes cause the political plates to shift, creating new alliances and disrupting old ones.
The economic crisis of 2008, for instance, turned many free-market Republicans into advocates of government intervention; it was Republican Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, after all, who actually genuflected before Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an attempt to keep a $700 billion bank bailout on track.
The capitol riots of Jan. 6, meanwhile, caused a few mainstream Republicans to get off the “election fraud” bandwagon, even if it hasn’t put much of a dent in former President Donald Trump’s grassroots support.
In Catholic terms, the Burrill episode may turn out to be such a shock, one that recasts the prevailing sense of who’s on which side. To put the prospect in overly generalized terms, the new fault line may not be so much left v. right, but center v. edge.
On the edge are independent operators with a sort of Malcom X, “by any means necessary” approach to what they see as church reform, whether of the left or the right – although it has to be said that these days, the most contentious and aggressive such forces seem to be on the right, probably no surprise in a time when the levers of power in the church are thought to be in the hands of the left.
In the center are establishment figures, beginning with clergy who now find themselves at perennial risk of being targets of the next exposé. It would also include mainstream Catholics turned off by the infighting and ugliness, as well as people who simply think there are certain standards of decency that shouldn’t be blurred and find themselves worried about where all this is heading.
It’s not difficult to imagine that churchmen heretofore antagonists in the communion-for-Biden debate or other such tussles might sense more in common now, facing a joint threat. It’s also not hard to imagine the kind of Catholic who reads America, and the kind who reads First Things – not that there aren’t plenty of people who do both, but you get the idea – sharing a moment’s alarm over who, and what, might be next, and wishing something could be done about it.
It will be interesting to see if anyone is able to put together such a coalition of the center, one that might have the capacity to stand up to the edge and refuse to let them dictate the rules of the game, but it’s a question many are asking.
New take on Catholic media
Once upon a time, when a bishop gave an interview to a Catholic news outlet it was the functional equivalent of hiring a PR firm. He could count on the reporter to cast him in a favorable light, to ask nothing uncomfortable or controversial, and to leave his reputation, at a minimum, no worse for the wear and tear.
When I first got started in this racket, I met an old-timer who explained the lay of the land this way: “Our job,” he said, “is to be the fifth evangelist, not the fourth estate.”
Those days are long past, as today a wide range of independent Catholic platforms approach the church the same way a good metro paper approaches city hall, albeit filtered through their own editorial allegiances.
My experience is that until now, when newsmakers in the church deal with Catholic journalists, they don’t expect her or him to be deferential or to make them look good. Up to this point, however, most have expected two other things.
First, they expect the journalist will be more knowledgeable about the church than a general interest secular reporter – they won’t have to slow down to explain what “catechism” means, for instance. Second, they generally expect the journalist will observe some basic ethical standards, if for no other reason than self-interest – if you want to make a career out of covering the church, it’s probably not a good idea to acquire a reputation among church types as a rogue operator or a sleazeball.
In truth, that second impression has been unraveling for a while, but the Pillar episode probably marks its epitaph.
To put the point differently, the word that not so long ago came to mind when a newsmaker faced a Catholic journalist often was, “Professionalism.” Now it’s more likely to be, “Danger.”
The natural result is likely to be that fewer newsmakers will agree to be interviewed by Catholic journalists, they won’t trust old distinctions among “on the record,” “background” and “off the record” and thus become less revealing even when they do agree to talk, and in general it’ll become more difficult to get at the truth about anything.
Perhaps without being conscious of it, Pillar thus has helped to create a new, more challenging work environment for anyone doing journalism about the Catholic Church. Whether that’s the inevitable cost of speaking truth to power, or the lamentable fallout from a serious ethical lapse, it’s where we find ourselves anyway.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr