The liberal Washington Post this week published a lengthy report on a lay group that, in the Post’s words, “outed” a prominent “gay” priest in 2021.
The Denver-based nonprofit Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal was founded to work with clergy to improve the culture among the Catholic hierarchy following the sexual scandals that rocked the Church in 2018.
The main focus of the Post report was the use of cell phone location data to discover the inappropriate sexual activity of a prominent cleric, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, whose duties included helping coordinate the Church’s response to sexual misconduct by clergy.
“Part of our work, we’ve now learned, has come to the attention of the Washington Post—not traditionally an outlet with much regard for the Church, or understanding of how she works and what she teaches,” wrote the group’s president, Jayd Henricks, in an article published at First Things the day before the Post published its own report. “To them, it seems, lay Catholics working with clergy, one at the service of the other, is something sinister, and only understandable through a secular political lens and the narrative of a culture war.”
The Post reviewed an audio recording of Henricks and spoke with two people who have direct knowledge of the Renewal organization, according to the report. “Both disapprove of the project because they see it as spying and coercive in ways that are damaging to priest-bishop relations and to the reputation of the Catholic Church and thus its ability to evangelize,” the Post reported. “They also see the project as taking a simplistic approach to morality that they call un-Catholic.”
“Some of the men who are part of the Renewal project were also involved in the July 2021 outing of a prominent priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, according to the two people with firsthand knowledge of the project and comments by the group’s president on the audio recording,” the report continued:
Burrill, who declined to comment for this story, resigned from his post as the top administrator at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) after a Catholic news site, the Pillar, said it had mobile app data showing he was a regular on Grindr and had gone to a gay bar and a gay bathhouse and spa. The Pillar did not say where its data came from.
Henricks wrote of the story’s angle:
As they and similar secular outlets usually do when trying to talk about Catholic issues, the Post has fixated on a small part of what we do—anything that touches on sex. According to them, it seems, you can (even should) have all the sex you like, with whomever and however you wish, but discussing what the effects of this might be for our physical and mental health—to say nothing of spiritual well-being—is somehow weird and obsessive.
I disagree, and so does the Church. Ignoring the importance and reality of human sexuality and its expression isn’t healthy, and pretending problems aren’t there only stores up worse trouble for everyone, as we have all too painfully learned.
The Post’s report noted that “it is not known whether the data has led to the resignation or termination of any other priests or seminarians” besides Burrill, though one of their two sources darkly suggested that actively homosexual clerics might find themselves held back from promotions due to their use of gay hookup apps, while being kept in the dark as to why.
“The project’s existence reflects a newly empowered American Catholic right wing that sees enforcing its interpretation of church teaching on sexuality and gender as an existential issue for the church and that no longer trusts bishops to do so,” the report stated. “It is a flip of traditional church power dynamics, with the Colorado laypeople in a position to pressure bishops.”
Henricks acknowledged that, “as part of our data analysis work, we learned that some clergy were publicly advertising their interest in actions that contradicted their promises of celibacy.” In some cases, in fact, “we could scarcely avoid seeing it,” he lamented. “And there have been news reports about priests arrested for criminal use of such apps. All of that is a problem—one we as a Church can choose to acknowledge and confront, or not.”
As the Post report acknowledged, Pillar Editor JD Flynn had pointed out in the Burrill exposé that Grindr, the hookup app used by the high-ranking prelate, is known as a particularly debauched platform. Flynn noted that predators seeking encounters with minors have been known to use the app, but was careful to add that there is no indication Burrill attempted contact with anyone underage.
The Post also acknowledged another point Flynn made: “In 2021, Pillar editor JD Flynn defended their reporting, saying a priest shouldn’t be on Grindr for the same reason a priest shouldn’t ride alone in a car with a child,” – an uncontroversial protocol put in place following clergy sex abuse scandals.
The Post quoted two Catholic experts in canon law who expressed disapproval of Renewal’s work, citing the fact that there is no specific canon in Church law against a prelate having a gay hookup app on his cell phone.
The report also quoted “a member of the USCCB who knows Burrill and watched the monsignor experience ‘intense emotional distress’ when his orientation and use of Grindr were made public in 2021.” The anonymous bishop suggested it was a “sin” for Flynn to have reported “information that harms a person’s reputation without an objectively valid reason — even if it’s true….”
In addressing the Post’s effort to reexamine the story, Henricks focused on the deep concerns that Catholics both lay and clerical harbor about the moral state of the Church in the aftermath of grave sex abuse scandals.
“In 2018, the scandal involving then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick shocked the Catholic world,” Henricks wrote. “McCarrick had a global presence; he operated at the highest levels of the Church, and he enjoyed the highest esteem—both among Catholics and more broadly.”
It was profoundly disturbing for Catholics to then find out that McCarrick – arguably America’s most influential hierarch, “had been grooming and sexually abusing young men for decades,” Henricks wrote:
It was yet another heart-wrenching wake-up call for a Church in need of reform, coming after earlier scandals of Church leaders who failed to protect the faithful from predators in her midst.
Despite a slew of meetings, documents, and reforms from bishops on protecting minors and vulnerable adults, Catholics watched as the scandal deepened, and as pews continued to empty, costing souls. It became abundantly clear that the Church’s internal reform needed every hand to the pumps.
That, Henricks explained, was the motive behind his and others’ efforts at reforming the Church and – importantly – protecting vulnerable young people from future abuses.