Top U.S. Catholic Church official resigns after being outed

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill. (Screengrab via YouTube / United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced his resignation July 20. The sudden resignation came after The Pillar, an “independent Catholic investigative journalism media project,” reported in an un-bylined story that Burrill had “engaged in serial sexual misconduct, while he held a critical oversight role in the Catholic Church’s response to the recent spate of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals.”

The resignation came a day after The Pillar informed the USCCB it had accessed Burrill’s cell phone data over three years. That data revealed Burrill used Grindr, the gay male dating app, frequented gay bars as well as at least one bathhouse, and went to private residences not his own, all on a regular basis.

There is no indication that Burrill, 47, has engaged in anything other than consensual adult relationships with other gay men or that his personal relationships interfered in any way with the performance of his duties at USCCB.

But The Pillar also quoted Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, who unequivocally equated consensual gay male adult sexual activity with “predation.” And The Pillar reported other priests engaged in sexual abuse and assault of minors in the story, attempting to link Burrill’s actions to that of pedophile priests.

The Pillar reported, “An analysis of app data signals correlated to Burrill’s mobile device shows the priest also 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.”

The Pillar also wrote, “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.”

Burrill was elected general secretary of the USCCB in November 2020, after serving as associate general secretary since February 2016. The position coordinates all administrative work and planning for the conference, which is the nation’s network for Catholic bishops.

At USCCB, Burrill was charged with helping to coordinate the U.S. bishops’ response to the Church’s sexual abuse scandals. From the La Crosse, Wisconsin diocese, Burrill was a parish priest and a professor before joining the administrative staff of the USCCB in 2016. He graduated from seminary in 1994 and has been in teaching and pastoral positions since then.

The Pillar reported that “Burrill and senior USCCB officials met with Pope Francis on Oct. 8, 2018, to discuss how the conference was responding to ecclesiastical scandals related to sexual misconduct, duplicity, and clerical cover-ups.”

The Pillar also noted that “Burrill, then second-in-command at the conference, is widely reported to have played a central role in coordinating conference and diocesan responses to the scandals, and coordinating between the conference and the Vatican.”

Comments on Twitter and other social media indicate that USCCB staff and former staff, as well as other Catholics are shocked and saddened by the information about Burrill as well as by his resignation.

Steven Millies, a professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, posted a piece for the National Catholic Reporter about Burrill on the morning of July 21. Millies wrote, “The Pillar investigation of Msgr. Burrill is unethical, homophobic innuendo.”

Millies wrote in part, “I am a sinner. So are you. So is Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to Burrill.”

As a priest, Burrill has taken a vow of celibacy. Catholic teaching opposes sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, opposes all homosexual sexual activity, and does not recognize same-sex marriage.

According to The Pillar, “Data app signals suggest [Burrill] was engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity. On June 20, 2018, the day the McCarrick revelations became public, the mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted hookup app signals at the USCCB staff residence, and from a street in a residential Washington neighborhood. He traveled to Las Vegas shortly thereafter, data records show.On June 22, the mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted signals from Entourage, which bills itself as Las Vegas’ ‘gay bathhouse.’”

In a formal letter to the USCCB July 20, Archbishop José Gomez, President of the USCCB, said it was “with great sadness” that he had accepted Burrill’s resignation.

Gomez said, “On Monday we became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by Msg. Burrill. What was shared with us did not include allegations of misconduct with minors. However in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference, Monsignor has resigned effective immediately.”

The Pillar correlated “a unique mobile device to Burrill when it was used consistently from 2018 until at least 2020 from the USCCB staff residence and headquarters, from meetings at which Burrill was in attendance, and was also used on numerous occasions at Burrill’s family lake house, near the residences of Burrill’s family members, and at a Wisconsin apartment in Burrill’s hometown, at which Burrill himself has been listed as a resident.”

The Pillar said it approached USCCB officials last week, offering to present findings regarding personnel misconduct to USCCB leadership during an off-the-record meeting before publication, and then allowing the conference time to formulate its internal response.

But the publication said “The conference initially scheduled a meeting with The Pillar for Monday, July 19, but on Sunday [July18] the conference cancelled the meeting, and said it would only respond to written questions, which The Pillar submitted late Sunday night, requesting a response by Monday afternoon.”

The Pillar’s story and Burrill’s subsequent forced resignation raise questions about privacy and whether gay priests are being targeted for surveillance.

On July 19, CNA, the Catholic News Agency, questioned whether this kind of tracking, like that done by The Pillar, was even legal. CNA queried, “The prospect of private parties using national security-style surveillance technology to track the movements and activities of bishops, priests, and other Church personnel is raising concerns about civil liberties, privacy rights and what means are ethical to use in Church reform efforts.”

The data gathered can tell, a data specialist told CNA, “what places they frequent, such as, let’s say, a really shady part of town not consistent with a priestly life.”

CNA explained that surveillance of gay priests has been an issue for several years, noting that the issue was first raised in 2018, when “a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency.”

CNA said, “This party claimed to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular ‘hook-up’ apps, such as Grindr and Tinder, and to pinpoint their locations using the internet addresses of their computers or mobile devices.”

The proposal was to provide this information privately to Church officials in the hopes that they would discipline and/or remove those found to be using these technologies to violate their clerical vows and possibly bring scandal to the Church.

A Catholic specialist on digital technology and data gathering, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue said, “Basically, this technology is capable of pinpointing individuals who have downloaded a ‘gay app,’ finding out how much they are using it, and then figuring out, thanks to the geolocation technology, if they live at a seminary, or work at a parish or a major Catholic organization.”

Millies wrote for the National Catholic Reporter that The Pillar is doing tabloid outing, not journalism. Millies wrote, “This is the hook on which the ‘story’ hangs, a long-discredited link between sexual abuse and homosexuality. It is hard to call that something other than a slur and a sin against the LGBTQ+ community.”

Millies continues, “Not to mention, the article’s allegations, if true, ‘out’ Burrill’s sexuality without his consent — a widely condemned practice. A long ugly season awaits American Catholics. No one is safe and — it seems — all is permitted.”

PGN requested comment from USCCB, Burrill and The Pillar, but had not received responses as of press time.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.