As an investigative reporter, Jason Berry exposed the church’s systematic cover-up of sexual abuse. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.
By Tom Deignan
How much do you really want to know about your parish priest?
Well, that depends on a number of factors. It might depend on who you voted for in the 2020 election.
It also might depend on whether or not you can get your hands on his cell phone. Or his cell phone records.
Such is the debate scorching up religious and tech circles these days. It was initiated by two Irish American lawyers-turned-crusaders (if you will), which sounds like nice work if you can get it.
Unless that work prompts one of the most respected voices in Catholic American circles to say, “What comes next? Spying on Catholic school teachers? Spying on parishioners? And where does it end — when we have a church where no one has ever sinned? The church will be empty.”
That’s James Martin, the best-selling Irish American author and commentator, and regular guest on Stephen Colbert’s show.
Martin, quoted in The Washington Post, was responding to the work of Ed Condon and JD Flynn, the ex-lawyers who now run The Pillar, which is billed as a Catholic “newsletter.”
Well, boys, you wanted attention. You got attention!
This all began earlier this month with a special “Pillar Investigation.” For the sake of fairness — or decency, or karma — we’re going to explain this story but leave out the name of the priest at its center, even though it is very much out there.
“According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to (the priest) emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020,” the investigation notes.
It adds: “An analysis of app data signals correlated to (the priest’s) mobile device shows the priest also visited gay bars and private residences while using (the) location-based hookup app in numerous cities from 2018 to 2020, even while traveling on assignment…”
Where to begin?
As you can imagine, this has elicited a broad range of angry responses, and not only because of the personal behavior of this priest who is not a mere parish priest, but also a rather big big-wig.
There is also the issue of these two Irish Catholics, who both attended very respectable schools and have held lucrative jobs, essentially crawling through the 21st century equivalent of a stinky trash can to dig up secrets about a prominent American religion official.
Who, by the way, resigned his various positions in recent days.
“The case of the high-ranking Catholic cleric who resigned after allegedly being tracked on the gay dating app Grindr quickly became a Rorschach test Wednesday for Catholics already mired in tension over politics, theology and culture,” The Washington Post noted.
Since Flynn and Condon are loud and proud church “traditionalists,” their cheering section has pointed to these findings and declared that gay priests and other post-1960s dogma-ignorers are ruining the U.S. Catholic Church.
But those on another side see little more than “a witch hunt aimed at gay Catholic priests,” in the words of America Magazine national correspondent Michael O’Loughlin.
If it smells like and looks like a burning-stake, well, that’s probably what it is.
It seems appropriate, though, that I confess something else here.
It took me a few minutes to make heads or tails of this story. For a moment I thought perhaps that the priest was actually being pressured, in the name of social justice, to proudly proclaim and embrace the private details of his romantic life.
There have, after all, been many times so-called progressives felt it was entirely appropriate to expose the private lives of culture-war opponents. Or divulge personal details to turn enemies into “allies.”
We are approaching the end game of the oft-chanted belief that the “personal is political.” That what you wear and drink, share and think, either saves or ruins the planet.
What you do when you take off your clothes is the inevitable next skirmish.
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The Michigan Catholic Conference has contributed nearly $240,000 to a campaign committee opposing a business-backed initiative to expand Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for LGBTQ individuals.
Campaign finance reports filed on Monday show the Lansing-based Michigan Catholic Conference, which bills itself as “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan on matters of public policy,” has made $238,874.80 in direct and in-kind contributions to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice, an organization formed in April that has actively opposed the LGBTQ initiative. The MCC made up nearly all of the committee’s $204,175 in direct contributions this funding cycle.
The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign launched the ballot initiative to expand Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to enshrine protections in employment and public accommodations for LGBTQ individuals and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers voted unanimously on Monday to reject Fair and Equal Michigan’s petition signatures, claiming the campaign didn’t have enough valid signatures to advance the proposal.
Fair and Equal Michigan officials have vowed to appeal the Board of Canvassers’ vote to the state Court of Appeals.
The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign has received widespread support from some of Michigan’s largest employers, including Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and General Motors, to name a few. Executives have said expanding the civil rights law is not only a human rights issue, but also a key component to attracting and retaining talent to the state.
Earlier this year, Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice filed a challenge against Fair and Equal Michigan before the Board of State Canvassers, as Michigan Advance previously reported. The newly formed committee had ties to attorneys who had previously fought LGBTQ measures, but it was unclear at the time who was funding the organization.
Campaign finance reports show the Michigan Catholic Conference directly contributed $200,000 to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice on July 2, and gave another $38,874.80 in in-kind donations on July 7. The committee has also received $3,000 from issue advocacy group Michigan Future First, and $1,000 from the Lansing-based Michigan Family Forum. The committee reported $80,389.55 in expenditures, leaving nearly $124,000 in cash on hand.
Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice Treasurer Daniel Wholihan declined to comment for this story, referring questions to committee spokesperson and Republican political strategist Patrick Meyers.
Meyers said in an emailed statement to MiBiz: “The Board of State Canvassers got it right: the so-called “Fair and Equal” petition clearly submitted an inadequate number of signatures for their initiative. They got a fair and equal review by the Bureau of Elections, but fell well short, and we’re pleased that their poorly drafted, misleading proposal is now off the table for 2022.”
Officials with the Michigan Catholic Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The organization issued a press release Monday about its effort to support challenges to Fair and Equal Michigan.
“The Fair and Equal Michigan proposal includes an unprecedented and likely unconstitutional provision to define religion only as a person’s individual beliefs and would restrict the ability for religious organizations to provide humanitarian aid and social services in the public square,” MCC Vice President for Communications David Maluchnik said in a statement. “The proposal would have a crushing impact on the poor of Michigan by harming many Catholic and Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organizations who daily and outwardly express their faith as a way of life out of love for their neighbor.”
Fair and Equal Michigan Spokesperson Josh Hovey told MiBiz: “When we have every major business group in the state … endorsing us, it’s not necessarily suprising but it’s transparent to see who’s out there funding the opposition. And unfortunately it’s the opposition.”
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When the news broke that Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill had been caught trawling for hookups on Grindr, the immediate reaction for many was one of disgust at his hypocrisy. Burrill, who had served as secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) before resigning, was right in the thick of all the Church’s attacks on LGBTQ rights. At the same time that he was promoting anti-LGBTQ attacks, he was also having apparently sex with other men.
But the story is a lot more complicated than just outing a hypocrite. It’s also a lot more frightening.
Burrill was outed by The Pillar, a right-wing Catholic outlet that says it obtained anonymous Grindr data legally, and then reconstructed it to identify signals coming from Burrill’s phone.
For its part, The Pillar was vague about how it got the data, other than to say it was “commercially available,” suggesting that they paid for it. It also didn’t say who conducted the analysis of the data.
Presumably, it wasn’t done by the site’s founders, JD Flynn and Ed Condon, but both of them previously worked at the Catholic News Agency, a conservative outlet, where they developed a reputation for taking aim at the hierarchy.
“Both regularly sprinkle their tweets with references to church law and confidently — some say cockily — tout their own interpretations as the most pure and accurate,” the Washington Post reported.
That sense of moral superiority permeates the reporting on Burrill. The Pillar didn’t target Burrill just for being a hypocrite. They targeted him for (presumably) being gay.
The column outing Burrill — which carries no bylines — is riddled with the language of high moral dudgeon. Burrill engaged in “serial and illicit sexual activity” and “serial sexual misconduct,” it reads.
The column even goes so far as to link Burrill hooking up with men with pedophilia.
“There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr,” the article stated, “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, as Church leaders have called in recent months for a greater emphasis on technology accountability in Church policies.”
The article then went on to cite instances of other priests using hookup sites to solicit sex with minors.
Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit priest who has been advocating for the Church to adopt a more compassionate approach to LGBTQ people, noted the article “repeatedly conflated homosexuality with pedophilia, all under the guise of a journalistic ‘investigation.’”
The Pillar article raises two important issues in its fallout. The first is the weaponization of data to target individuals on ideological grounds. Fr. Martin has been the focus of conservative ire for his pastoral work, for which he was recently commended for by Pope Francis. It’s virtually a sure thing that The Pillar writers are working feverishly to find data that they can tie to Martin and others.
The second is the ongoing attempt by the Catholic right to rid the Church of even celibate gay priests, and thus try to pin the blame for the Church’s ongoing pedophilia scandal — enabled by many of the figures that the right admires —on gay priests.
The Church says celibate gay people are fine. It’s gay sex that’s the sin. The right doesn’t care about such distinctions. They want all LGBTQ people, priests or laity, gone. They’d also like to oust any of their allies or supporters, including Pope Francis, whom they view as a fellow traveler.
Fr. Martin rightly points out that data mining could be used to target virtually anyone the right disagrees with.
“Why stop at priests?” he asks. “Why not spy on unmarried lay teachers at Catholic schools? Perhaps they’re sexually active.”
But the right has shown no inclination to go after anyone other than LGBTQ people. The dozens of teachers and choir directors fired has no parallel among any other group.
Flynn and Condon are promising that more revelations will come from the mining data they obtained. They have turned it over to the Archdiocese of Newark citing “patterns of location-based hookup app use at more than 10 archdiocesan rectories and clerical residences.”
The witch hunt is already well underway.
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In January, when Ed Condon and JD Flynn broke off from their jobs at a long-standing Catholic news agency, they promised readers of their new newsletter that they would deliver reporting without an agenda, or a foregone conclusion. “We aim to do serious, responsible, sober journalism about the Church, from the Church and for the Church. . . . We want The Pillar to be a different kind of journalism.”
Six months later the Pillar broke the kind of story mainstream news organizations would be unlikely to touch: They said they had obtained commercially available data that included location history from the hookup app Grindr, and used it to track a high-ranking priest from his offices and family lake house to gay nightclubs.
Now Condon and Flynn, two 38-year-old canon lawyers-turned-muckrakers, are at the center of both a global surveillance-ethics story as well as a mud fight among their fellow Catholics over whether last week they served or disgraced the church. One Catholic writer described it as “a witch hunt aimed at gay Catholic priests.”
In some ways the Pillar story and reaction to it feels almost like a throwback: Conservative Catholics who point to the 1960s and liberalizing sexual mores for society’s troubles and focus on gay priests. But in 2021 the availability of personal digital data and the use of smartphones for surveillance are far bigger fears for the vast majority of Americans than is news about a member of the clergy possibly using a hookup app.
Flynn and Condon’s story also punctuates how America’s religious and journalistic landscapes have changed. Institutions and hierarchies now have to contend with scrappy start-ups taking matters into their own hands.
And in the growing conservative Catholic media scene, their newsletter and its takedown of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill represents a new power and boldness of those demanding their church be purged of leaders who they see as too permissive on issues like abortion, gender norms and sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
On Friday, the pair answered the question of whether there would be more sex-data stories following the Tuesday announcement of Burrill’s resignation as chief administrator of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Pillar reported it had brought some of its findings from the data to the Archdiocese of Newark to say there were “patterns of location-based hookup apps” at various clerical residences there. In a statement to The Post, the archdiocese said the Pillar provided no actual data or evidence of misconduct and that the matter is being reviewed.
Flynn and Condon initially said they were not interested in participating in an interview for this article, then agreed to consider questions by email, and later said they didn’t have sufficient time and declined. But in comments they’ve tweeted since Tuesday and a podcast they posted Friday, they explained a bit of their thinking.
“There’s nothing to recommend the indiscriminate naming and shaming of people for moral failures just because you can. That is unethical. And that is not something I believe we’ve done,” Condon said on the podcast.
“People are entitled to moral failures and repentance and reconciliation and to a legitimate good reputation. There’s a difference between that and serial and consistent, immoral behavior on the part of a public figure charged with addressing public morality, isn’t there?” Flynn said.
Catholicism opposes sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage and teaches that homosexuality is disordered. Priests may be gay — and many are — but must be celibate, according to Catholic teaching.
They also compared their Burrill piece to one done by the New York Times’ Opinion section, which explored the dangers of leaked smartphone data and used such data to identify a person who was near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The New York Times piece quoted one man who was interviewed and agreed to his name being used.
One of the writers of the Times’ piece Friday said the whole point of the reporting was to expose the vulnerability of such data, and that they didn’t name anyone without consent.
“This was the nightmare scenario that we were talking about to some degree. . . . To see it happen is just confirmation of just how dangerous this type of information is,” said Charlie Warzel, who has since left the Times and now is also publishing on Substack, the same online newsletter platform the Pillar uses. “Despite the fact that I don’t think there are any ethical similarities with what we did and this, it obviously makes me feel terrible that our work was used as a justification in this.”
Condon and Flynn were willing to go where Catholic media in the past apparently have not.
Specifically, in 2018, when an anonymous tipster offered an explosive scoop to Alejandro Bermudez, executive editor of the Catholic News Agency, the Colorado-based outlet owned by EWTN, a multimillion dollar nonprofit Catholic media company.
The data hawker, who, Bermudez said, agreed to meet at a Denver coffee shop, claimed to have a trove of information showing priests using dating apps. The person came from a technology background but was interested in “reforming” the church and wanted the material that allegedly could expose priests’ double lives to be in Catholic hands, he told The Post.
Bermudez said he doesn’t recall the tipster’s name but that he was dubious about the data’s credibility and its news value, and he passed for those reasons.
Flynn and Condon were at CNA when Bermudez got that tip, but neither knew about it, Bermudez said. He also doesn’t know whether the data in the Pillar story is the same information once presented to him but said there are parallels.
Bermudez said CNA gets a few pitches each year from people who allege they can reveal priests’ indiscretions. But he said he would not have published the story about Burrill and was concerned about the other ways similar data could be weaponized within the church.
“Once this cat is out of the bag, what is the limit?” Bermudez said. “If we say, ‘Listen, that was completely legitimate, that was completely moral,’ then any kind of tracking by any authority in the Catholic Church is fair game.”
Now it appears similar information did end up in Catholic hands — just not those of a legacy Catholic media organization, instead in those of two men running an upstart newsletter who say their journalism is in the service of Jesus Christ. Some Catholics agree; others, even fellow conservative Catholic journalists, worry the pair also see themselves as a kind of prophet, judge, jury and executioner.
Flynn grew up in a Protestant family in New Jersey and converted to Catholicism. He worked for the Archdiocese of Denver from 2007 to 2013 under leading conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput. Flynn was chancellor there for the last two of those years. He was also spokesman for the diocese of Lincoln, Neb., the lone holdout in the American Catholic Church where girls may not be altar servers. He is a canon lawyer, an expert on church laws, such as those guiding Catholic annulments or disputes.
Condon, nephew of Catholic University President John Garvey, grew up in New Jersey and England, and worked in British politics for years before serving as a canon lawyer in U.S. dioceses.
At the Catholic News Agency, the pair quickly stood out for being the rare right-leaning Catholic journalists aimed squarely at the hierarchy and holding it accountable. Both regularly sprinkle their tweets with references to church law and confidently — some say cockily — tout their own interpretations as the most pure and accurate.
They also draw readers with their personal tweets, more casual than Vatican-stuffy, with Flynn as the wholesome dad of three sharing photos of his family and preaching about traditional values, while Condon plays the cynical grump who pines for the old days when men wore suits and elegant watches.
Flynn was interviewed for a 2018 master’s project at the University of Missouri about ethics in Catholic journalism.
In that paper, he said he thought all journalists are the same in that they all have a “guiding set of assumptions. . . . The concept of objective journalism is a myth.”
However, the paper described Flynn as saying that Catholic journalism has a different set of ends in mind than simply to inform and educate. The difference, he argued, is that “the Catholic perception of the common good is, ultimately, the salvation of souls, and more generally the Church’s ideas, developed over the centuries, about what constitutes human flourishing.”
Flynn and Condon resigned from CNA late last year to launch the Pillar, mirroring a broader media narrative in which journalists have left established media companies to strike out on their own. The publishing platform allows them editorial freedom, but not always a guaranteed paycheck: Writers can collect subscription money from newsletters, with Substack taking a 10 percent cut. Some writers get an advance.
As of last week, the Pillar ranked as the third-highest-grossing Substack in the “faith” category, and it has thousands of subscribers.
“The trends in Catholic media are not that different from secular media,” said the Rev. Matt Malone, editor in chief of America, a Jesuit magazine. Some writers are going independent with Substacks while legacy outlets, he said, are trying to “amass this sizable digital audience and to navigate editorially in a polarized world.”
But while competition among secular media for eyeballs and clicks is about financial survival, for Catholic media, there’s another underlying struggle: for the right to say who is on the side of God and the true church.
There are left-leaning sites that focus on social justice aspects of church teachings such as the rights and needs of the poor and immigrants, while others focus heavily on teachings around abortion and sexual orientation.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, a Catholic writer who works for the conservative National Review, said last week she was torn about the ethics of the Pillar’s methods. However, she said she understood the men’s motivation.
Lopez said the Pillar is a product of “this frustration that men aren’t living the lives they stepped up to live” — namely priests who violate their promises to be chaste, and concerns that teachings about things like contraception and homosexuality are being ignored.
“They’re concerned about the rot in the church. There’s clearly been a nodding and winking and looking away. The church is not immune from the fallout of the sexual revolution — that’s gotten as extreme as putting children on puberty blockers,” she said. “Someone has to clean up the church for the sake of the world. . . . I think this is why the Pillar exists.”
>Condon and Flynn were vague about why they left CNA.
In their podcast episode Friday, they said a source approached them a few months ago with a broad data set that supposedly let them link dating-app use to priests’ phones. The data did not contain names and phone numbers but did have the phones’ unique identifying numbers and information about their locations. Using additional information, like the priest’s known locations and travel, it was possible to identify who some of the data belonged to, the writers said.
Flynn and Condon said they verified the data’s legitimacy but did not say how or with whom. They said the data had been bought legally but didn’t say whether they paid for it.
They argued that Burrill was a legitimate target because he was a CEO-like figure at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which develops policies such as those protecting children from sexual abuse. Getting pushback for linking being gay and child abuse, the men said they were calling out Grindr itself as dangerous for children, not gay people. In its original story on Burrill, the Pillar wrote, “There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr.”
Michael Brendan Dougherty, a senior writer at the National Review, said he has been impressed by the outlet’s reporting on Vatican finances.
“(The church) doesn’t need more volunteer interpreters of the pope’s ‘true intentions’ or whatever it is other outlets speculate about. It needs journalism about corruption, management and policy. That’s what the Pillar does,” Dougherty said.
But media ethics watchers were unnerved by their tactics, even if the data was legally obtained.
“I worry very much about creating — through some of these precedents — a permissibility of journalists to basically publish whatever they can get their hands on,” said Edward Wasserman, media ethics professor and dean emeritus of University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Many other prominent Catholics were similarly disturbed by the Pillar’s methods
Michael O’Loughlin, a national correspondent for America magazine, called it “a witch hunt aimed at gay Catholic priests” on Twitter.
Monsignor Richard Antall, a pastor in Cleveland and author, wrote in a Catholic digital magazine focused on the L.A. area that the Pillar’s story took an “inquisitorial approach.” David Scott, the spokesman for the USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez, shared Antall’s essay in a tweet:
“Serious ethical questions about this ‘investigation.’ Must reading,” Scott tweeted.
Toward the end of Friday’s podcast, Flynn and Condon bemoaned the public debate about their recent work.
“I hate being the center of attention like this,” Flynn said
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