Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Pillar stories do raise questions—but not about journalistic ethics

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 28, 2021

Journalistic ethics: That’s not a topic often discussed by Catholic media outlets, and for two good reasons.

First, most Catholic media outlets are heavily subsidized, and therefore reliant on the goodwill of their sponsors. A diocesan newspaper, for instance, is reporting on the institution that pays its bills. There’s a conflict of interest there—albeit one so obvious that it doesn’t really require disclosure.

Second—and related—most Catholic media outlets steer well clear of controversy. When the editors limit themselves to “safe” stories, they are rarely tempted to violate journalistic standards.

During the past twenty years or so, however, some new, independent Catholic news organizations have appeared on the scene. (Catholic World News was among them.) These outlets, not subsidized by ecclesiastical institutions, are inclined to take a more aggressive editorial approach.

The Pillar site, one of the most recent entries in the field, has broken new ground in the past week. First Pillar uncovered cell-phone data that strongly suggested a pattern of homosexual activity by Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the general secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and prompted his abrupt resignation. Then Pillar disclosed the existence of similar data implicating clergy in the Newark archdiocese. Most recently the site reported on multiple calls to “hookup apps” coming from inside Vatican offices. I suspect that we shall hear more from Pillar before their lode of data-signal material is exhausted.

Did these Pillar stories violate journalistic standards? I do not see an easy answer to that question, because I cannot readily identify which standards might have been violated.

Were the stories based on stolen material? No; all the data used in the investigative reports were commercially available—for a price. Did Pillar receive the information from an undisclosed source? Yes, but any media outlet routinely receives information from a wide variety of sources, and some of those sources seek anonymity. (Whether or not to cite anonymous sources is a judgment call for editors. In this case, since the information was independently verifiable, I think the Pillar editors were on safe ground.)

The radical-left National Catholic Reporter was predictably outraged by the Pillar stories, and published an analysis claiming a pattern of “questionable journalism”, but provided little evidence thereof, beyond the fact that the Pillar journalists rarely agree with the perspective of the National Catholic Reporter. (The Reporter’s Christopher White also accuses Pillar’s editors of having friends and—prepare yourself for a shock—practicing as canon lawyers.) But in the course of his tendentious analysis, White did include a very sensible perspective:

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization, told NCR, “The article raises a number of questions about cyber security and personal privacy and presents an alarming question of whether you can be tracked wherever you go.”

Yes, the Pillar stories raise interesting questions about journalistic ethics. I, too, find it alarming that data from my cell phone can be used to track my activities (although, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the trackers wouldn’t have much of a story). But the point is that this field—tracking data—is unexplored territory for ethicists. There are no “journalistic standards” in this area. Maybe the Pillar stories will prompt some reflection among serious journalists, and eventually a consensus will emerge about what editors and readers should expect in the treatment of the data now available in the public domain. But no such consensus exists today.

One final, crucial question: Did the Pillar revelations make unwarranted accusations against individuals? No. The data by themselves do not prove anything. But they certainly do raise questions. There may be a good reason why clerics would be using hookup apps, but it is not easy to imagine what that reason might be.

And here, I think, we come to an important point in our exploration of the Pillar stories. Why did Pillar want to explore the information available from the cell-phone use of clerics? Why did some unknown donor want to make that information available to Pillar, for public release? The answer, I submit, is obvious.

For years now, concerned Catholics have warned about the prevalence of homosexual activity among the clergy. As long ago as 2000, Donald Cozzens—a former seminary rector, who could not be classified as a conservative by any standards—warned in The Changing Face of the Priesthood that “the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.” But our bishops have chosen to ignore the problem of clerical homosexuality, as long as only consenting adults are involved. Absent videotape, it is virtually impossible to prove that a priest is actively engaged in homosexual activity. And Church leaders have chosen to ignore the abundant circumstantial evidence.

So now Pillar, with the help of an anonymous information-broker, has upped the ante. We still do not know that influential clerics are active homosexuals. But we do know that phone calls to gay hookup sites have come from the offices of the US bishops’ conference and of the Holy See. There is a problem here that must be addressed, and it’s not a problem of journalistic ethics.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 31, 2021 7:14 AM ET USA

    In apologetics we refer to the practical atheist: a person who feigns belief in God, but practices anti-God behaviors. Christ teaches and Pope Francis has said that what you do speaks as loudly as what you say. This brings us to the question of sexual morality. Sexual immorality used to be not only condemned in society, but illegal. No more. Sexual immorality is now promoted in society and excused in Church circles and teaching documents. Example: AL 303 denies the power of grace to resist evil.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jul. 30, 2021 3:18 AM ET USA

    If you don't want to be called out for immoral activity, don't engage in immoral activity. These procedural defenses are a de facto admission of guilt. Msgr Burrill should be given an opportunity to explain, but failing a convincing denial, he should be defrocked. It is time to address seriously the problem of homosexual infestation in the Catholic clergy

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jul. 29, 2021 4:27 PM ET USA

    " I, too, find it alarming that data from my cell phone can be used to track my activities" Phil, wake up. NSA has your location data as well as your cell phone call numbers if not content. The scary thing is that I don't know of any data collected that has not been abused sooner or later. As for Pillar, there didn't need to be an anonymous broker, just one curious computer guru and a few bucks to buy the data. I say "Great Job" Pillar.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 28, 2021 1:13 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. The opening and closing lines are especially right on target! There is an actual pattern of many decades of questionable ordinations and promotions up the clerical ladder, such as the case of McCarrick, that is infinitely more troubling to Catholics than the presumed "pattern" of "questionable journalism" in the Pillar reports of the past week. The goal of the right to privacy in Church's Law [Can. 220] is to guard human dignity but not to enable possibility of a double life.