The Limits of a Priest’s Right to Privacy

Yesterday Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill resigned from his position at the USCCB as a general secretary with responsibility for overseeing sex abuse cases. What caused the resignation of the highest-ranking non-bishop Church official in the country? He was caught regularly using apps that connect men who want to have sex with other men. 

An article by The Pillar, the news  journal that uncovered the data, reports: 

An analysis of app data signals correlated to Burrill’s mobile device shows the priest…visited gay bars and private residences while using a location-based hookup app in numerous cities from 2018 to 2020, even while traveling on assignment for the U.S. bishops’ conference. 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.

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Burrill shouldn’t be surprised that such data can be collected, since those who use these apps must consent to having their movements traced. Such apps store information about the users—information that can be purchased, often to target people for marketing purposes. 

Some are suggesting the data used by The Pillar was gained immorally. They argue that to do so is to violate some putative “right to privacy.” They seem to see use of such data as a form of detraction insofar as it is making “public” information, even when true, that should remain private. Yet I see no reason to speculate that such was the case.

It is not detraction, of course, to disclose true and damaging information about someone to someone else who has legitimate reasons to know that information; for example, an employee embezzling funds, or a wife or husband committing adultery or using drugs or squandering the family finances. Certainly a Bishop has a legitimate reason to know the information about his priests and so, too, in my mind, does anyone who is entrusting their immortal soul to guidance by a priest.

Dioceses are supposed to do periodic audits of diocesan offices and parishes to discover whether there has been any misappropriation of funds. They look through all the data and report any clearly wrong or suspicious use of funds. People can and do go to jail based on such information.

Companies use programs to determine if their employees are looking at porn or even shopping on company time; they often will fire employees who do so, since they are effectively “stealing” from the company.

Surely such data collection is a necessary form of accountability or “due diligence”. Is abuse of funds a more serious offense that the abuse of people? Does one’s sexual life come with a zone of privacy? Well, yes in some times and places. But for those who have pledged a life of chastity and help form others in chastity?

The Church itself, in fact, uses data collection and surveillance methods to police the sexual lives of priests and seminarians.

Seminaries have filters on computers to catch students, faculty (lay and priests), and staff who view pornography. The consequences can be very serious, including dismissal from the seminary or losing one’s job. Dioceses seize the computers and phones of priests accused of wrongdoing, especially sexual, to find evidence for their wrongdoing, such as the use of pornography. Dioceses even use the services of local law enforcement agencies when they investigate priests for wrongdoing.

There are surveillance cameras in many places these days—some think they should be in sacristies to see if priests are having sex with altar boys or penitents. Would that be wrong? If a surveillance camera in a Church or Church building recorded a priest having sexual intercourse, should that not be reported to the bishop?

But, the counterargument goes, shouldn’t a priest’s private life be his private life? 

Really? Again, priests are to be models and guardians of chastity. What does it do to a priest’s sexual partner to know he is having sex with a priest? This is not effective evangelization, to say the least. The phenomenon of priests who like to have sex with males telling young men struggling with same-sex attraction in the confessional that God made them that way and that they should seek a stable loving relationship appears to be quite common. It is not unknown that a priest will follow such a young man out of the confessional and groom him for future favors.

Let it sink in that Burrill from 2009 until 2013 was a professor and formation director at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In a lawsuit by a former seminarian, accusations are being made that sexual predation has been common for a very long time at the NAC. I think a new line of investigation has just opened up. 

Some point out that there is no evidence that Burrill was involved with minors. Still, he may have been; minors certainly lie about their age to use the apps. Yet, that he may not have been involved with minors also is largely irrelevant. It is certainly worse to have sex with a prepubescent child than with a postpubescent young person, and worse to have illicit sex with a young person than with an adult. But illicit sex is immoral and priests should not be engaging in sex, period. 

Another, lesser reason that bishops should want to know what immoral activity their priests are engaged in is that the whole diocese is liable for their behavior—for the abuse both of minors and the vulnerable. Even when there is no civil law against some sexual immorality, the costs of scandal when it comes out is serious—people leave or won’t join a church that harbors priests who have sex with males or females.

Finally, shouldn’t the bishops welcome this data? Msgr. Burrill has a bishop who is his spiritual father. Msgr. Burrill’s soul is in mortal danger. His father should want to know what he is doing and help him stop and recommit himself to a chaste life. For let’s not forget, this is all about souls.

[Photo: Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill (USCCB)]


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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