The Pillar Controversy: A List of Problems

It’s possible that The Pillar has now opened a pandora’s box. They didn’t create the monsters in it, but they may be remembered as the journalists who opened the lid.

Those of you who are in any way connected to Catholic social media have probably been, like me, inundated with “takes” on the recent article in The Pillar on a top USCCB official’s use of Grindr while leading responses to the clergy abuse crisis. The piece drew on data harvested from the app (probably unknown to most users) and used the data to target the official. It also discussed sexual predation in a way that’s been subject to critique. Because the angles of critique are so diverse, and because I have yet to see anyone else do so, I’ve provided below a summary of what I see to be some of the most significant critiques.

The Data

It appears that a unnamed source approached the Catholic News Agency and other organizations in 2018, claiming access to technology that could identify clergy who had used apps like Grindr and Tinder. CNA declined the offer to use the technology. It seems that none of the organizations took the source up on the offer at the time.

The editors of The Pillar (both of whom worked for CNA in 2018) bought this or similar data from a source they’ve identified as a “data vendor.” The data had individual identifiers associated with Grindr users, and kept a record of the locations at which the individuals had used the app. As The Pillar examined the data, it was able to identify one of the users as a high-ranking USCCB official. It brought this news to the USCCB, the official resigned, and then The Pillar wrote about the investigation, the individual’s use of Grindr, and the resignation.

Like most Grindr users, the individual was probably not aware that his cell phone data was being shared in this way. Grindr does not share users’ phone numbers, but in the past it has sold user ID’s and the locations of their use. As we now know, it’s not terribly difficult to use this information to identify individuals. Though the users consent to such sharing in the user terms, most are not aware that they grant permission to do this.

The best analogy I’ve come up with is: Suppose I invite people over for happy hour. I walk people into my living room, where the drinks and food are set up. I tell them, “Take whatever you want.” One of the guests sees my laptop in the living room, takes it, sells it to a news organization, and that organization writes a story based on what’s on the laptop. Technically, I gave him permission to do what he did. But his taking my laptop, and the news organization’s use of it, are ultimately destructive to social relations and the sort of interpersonal trust and hospitality required for the common good. (This is not the best analogy, but, again, it’s the best I’ve come up with.) (And just to be clear, if you do this when I invite you over for happy hour, you will not be invited over again.)

Regardless of the legality, I believe that Grindr’s sale of this data was evil. Likewise, I believe that the brokerage of such data is evil. If I am right (and maybe I’m wrong), then what The Pillar has engaged in here is formal cooperation with evil. It doesn’t matter that the story may have been worse if someone malicious had bought the data instead. Actually, the publicity of the story encourages malicious actors to buy the data. It’s extremely unlikely that The Pillar bought an exclusive license to it, and now the public at large has been put on notice that the data is up for sale.

Grindr and other apps have been subject to international fines over the sale of user data. But the United States is far behind other countries, in terms of privacy and data laws. So the US sales were not illegal, but they raise important ethical questions, both for companies that handle data and for journalists.

In 2019, the New York Times ran a horrifying piece on how cell phone data is commercially sold and can be used maliciously. Like The Pillar, they used commercially available datasets to demonstrate how individuals can be identified and tracked based on cell phone data individuals (often unwittingly) consent to their apps sharing with third parties. What’s unique about The Pillar’s piece is the way in which the data was used. According to Ars Technica, this is the first time “a public figure has been ousted after de-anonymized mobile phone location data was publicly reported, revealing sensitive and previously private details about his life.” This type of technology has been available to media outlets for a long time, but so far they have resisted using it to identify and publicly target individuals. Data has only been used in this way by malicious anti-gay actors in countries like Morocco and Russia.

It’s possible that The Pillar has now opened a pandora’s box. Mike Lewis comments in Where Peter Is:

“What the Pillar’s editors did was so extraordinary from a journalistic perspective that the secular media chose to focus on the ethics and dangers behind the reporting of the story, rather than on a prominent priest’s involvement in a sex scandal in the Catholic Church. That a Catholic news outlet—and not, say, a tabloid or political outlet—was the first media entity to expose a public figure’s private scandal in this way is remarkable.”

Though the editors at The Pillar may have thought carefully about how and why to use this kind of data, it’s possible that they will be remembered in journalistic history as the individuals who opened up a new world of tabloid targeting. They didn’t create the monsters in the box, but they may be remembered as the journalists who opened the lid.

Catholics have already begun using the piece to target and abuse enemies. Fr. James Martin shared how he has gotten messages saying, “You’re next f****t,” “We’re coming for you next Jimmy,” and, “When are you going to be outed, sodomite?” Any priest, Catholic school teacher, or Catholic leader who has ever been on Grindr or other dating apps over the last several years should be on notice: You could be next.

The Point of the Piece

Many are criticizing the piece, by asking: What was the point of it? This is the focus of Simcha Fischer, in asking about whether it was necessary to make the details of the priest’s misconduct public. There could be a number of reasons to publish a piece on clergy misconduct:

  • To uncover institutional corruption and the failure to adequately respond to such misconduct.

  • To protect persons who are vulnerable, and to encourage others to come forward.

  • To shed light on an issue that the public is unaware of or is trying to ignore.

It appears that soon after the USCCB was made aware of the misconduct in this instance, the priest resigned (perhaps after pressure or encouragement from his employer). As Fischer puts it:

“I know very well that the Church will often not act unless it’s forced into it, and public exposure is an effective tool. Apparently, The Pillar approached the USCCB and let them know the story was in the works. The USCCB agreed to meet, got rid of the guy, and then told the Pillar, ‘You know what, we’ll talk some other time.’ The Pillar then published the story. So in effect, this is a story about someone making a report of wrongdoing, and the USCCB responding appropriately. “

So the purpose wasn’t to report on or address institutional corruption, except insofar as the priest was occupying a position he should not have occupied.

The argument that the piece was meant to protect the vulnerable is also a different argument to make without reliance on innuendo and implication. Fischer notes that this does not appear to involve dangerous power dynamics, as the priest “apparently thought he could remain anonymous.” In fact, we don’t know if the priest actually did anything more than log into the app and, perhaps, scroll through profiles. The only “fact” that we have is that his phone had the app open. (More on this later.)

The Pillar’s editors did eventually provide a clarification on why they ran the story. On Twitter, they clarified:

“[L]aw enforcement, child protection advocates, and academics have warned repeatedly that location-based hookup apps pose risks of both intentional and unintentional exploitation and abuse of minors. Serial and undisclosed use of such an app for any purpose, by a person charged with aiding in technology accountability and reform, would seem to be a matter worth public consideration, especially in light of the Church’s pledges of transparency, accountability, and reform.”

At the risk of over-simplifying, the standard appears to be: If a person charged with aiding in technology accountability and reform uses an app that some have used to exploit minors, then that person runs the risk of becoming the subject of a public story. While I can appreciate the attraction of this position, it strikes me as just a little too close to the present situation to be a real principle on which to base decisions generally. And it’s also broad enough to include lay USCCB employees on Tinder. (Might I recommend Catholic Match or, for the especially chaste, Christian Tingle?) At the very least, The Pillar may be identifying and studying your app use as we speak, whether or not what they find makes its way into a public story.

Sam Sawyer, SJ argues in America that, while the priest in question here has damaged trust in the Church, this type of reporting also damages trust and communion:

[I]t is also a breach of trust in the life of the church to know that unnamed parties are approaching Catholic journalists offering to assist them in the technological surveillance of the clergy. It also weakens trust in the life of the church to learn that any and all users of smartphones have effectively already been tailed for years by the world’s most thorough private investigator, at least if someone has the funds and expertise to find an individual through data mining. It also injures trust in the life of the church to have leaders cast down—and widely vilified on social media—without knowing why or how their secret sin was targeted for revelation, how broad a net was cast or how widespread their pattern of sin was.

As I noted earlier this week, once the hunt for hypocrites has begun, no one is safe. And trust is a death-sentence. The only way to escape the hunt is to throw yourself on the fire by preemptively posting your deepest darkest secrets on social media. It’s a scary place to be in.

The Publication’s Funder(s)

The data used by The Pillar was not publicly available. It was, as the article stated, “commercially available.” That is, the data was available for sale from private parties. The Pillar only says that the data was “obtained” but it does not clarify how or from whom. This type of data is not cheap.

Many are asking who paid for the data, and who funds The Pillar generally (beyond their subscriptions). Fischer pulled up an article written by one of The Pillar editors in the past, in which he detailed the funding of a news article by another journalist. Without editorializing, Flynn in several paragraphs outlined the mission and work of the organization which provided the funding. Fischer asks:

“So you tell me. Does funding matter? Does it affect which stories are covered and how? Perhaps Flynn’s perspective has evolved now that his work is subscriber-based.”

Dawn Eden Goldstein took the time to go down a few rabbit holes, exploring possible funders for the data and for The Pillar generally. It’s important to note that Catholic media outlets, universities, and other organizations are increasingly being consolidated under the ownership (and/or board membership) of a small number of wealthy Catholics. This is the current trend of incorporated organizations in the United States generally, and the Church has not been particularly effective in resisting it, in part because we haven’t been paying attention. If you are wondering why EWTN increasingly takes on the talking points of the Trump campaign, it’s because they have the same donors. Goldstein is particularly interested in exploring this trend.

Goldstein opines on the founding of The Pillar:

“Two men with families don't quit their jobs to start a Substack without substantial seed money. There's a donor behind this.”

Others might be wondering whether the donor/funder of the dataset provided a full data set, or if they may have reviewed the data and removed individuals they did not want targeted. Many want to know about the motives and ideological dispositions of the donor. Of course, it’s standard practice for journalists to keep their “sources” confidential. But one must wonder about the extent to which a donor or commercial enterprise providing data is a “source.” To the extent that the provider of the data is a “source,” journalistic ethics may require keeping their/its identity confidential. In any event, many believe that an important part of the story is where the money for it (and for The Pillar) came from. But as someone who gets his paycheck from a large corporation, I’m not sure I’m in the best position to criticize how they get paid.

Homosexuality, Pedophilia, and Innuendo

Many have joined Fr. James Martin in arguing that The Pillarconflated homosexuality with pedophilia.” This strikes me as an overstatement, but an overstatement worth considering. The editors clarified, “There is no indication, at all, that the leader in question was using the app for any purpose pertaining to minors, and we would not wish to insinuate anything to the contrary.”

But as Tony Ginocchio points out (in, I should say, an incredibly uncharitable piece):

“According to The Pillar, Burrill was likely engaged in a ‘pattern of high-risk sexual behavior’, which is a big jump, which The Pillar then followed with an even bigger jump. After writing the sentence ‘There is no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors through his use of Grindr,’ the author of the piece then writes twenty-three paragraphs detailing other instances of priests and civilians using hookup apps to sexually abuse children, none of which have any relevance to Burrill's case whatsoever.”

What Ginocchio helps to underscore is that, even if the piece does not explicitly conflate homosexuality with sexual predation, more space is given to the priest’s ability to act as a sexual predator on the app than is given to the actual facts of the case at hand.

Ginocchio juxtaposes this with The Pillar’s introductory piece in January, in which the editors wrote:

“We aim to do serious, responsible sober journalism about the Church, from the Church, and for the Church... Good reporting assumes that people deserve the facts, unvarnished and without spin, in order to make judgments about real things that matter in their lives.”

They could have just briefly mentioned how hookup apps generally have had issues with sexual exploitation of minors, how minors have found sexual partners on them, and how even ownership of such apps would be a conflict for someone in his position. Instead, they shift the focus of the article to the sexual exploitation of minors for an extended period of time. In doing so, they even falsely cite a study. (They argue that, in a 2018 Northwestern Study of 14-17 gay and bisexual males, more than half of participants said they used hookup apps to meet partners. The study was actually limited to “sexually experienced” males. A study of gay and bisexual males generally might have resulted in very different findings.)

The only thing we “know” is that the priest in question opened the Grindr app repeatedly over an extended period of time and that, at various points, the location was in private residences and, once, in a gay spa (known as a place for gay men to have sex). The rest is innuendo and implication. I’m open to the possibility that use of the app could be defined as “serial sexual misconduct” or “a pattern of high-risk sexual behavior,” as The Pillar seems to define Grindr use. But this would largely depend on how broadly we consider the definition. We don’t actually know if he communicated with other users, received or sent explicit content, or did anything other than open a screen that would have had some shirtless torsos on it. I am sympathetic to the position that we should not be naive here, but I also think that The Pillar may be pushing the boundaries on “fact reporting” with this piece.

A Missing Perspective

One important perspective here is the perspective of someone who has actually used Grindr. The Pillar piece misses this critical perspective, while engaging a theology professor to opine on the dynamics of abuse. Thomas Berg argues that “when it becomes evident that a cleric is regularly and glaringly failing to live continence,” that can become “only a step away from sexual predation.” The implication here is that the priest in this case was “only a step away from sexual predation.” I’d be curious to know what a psychologist or expert on sexual abuse would have to say about this.

Consulting gay persons with experience on apps like Grindr might bring out other perspectives. For example, it might shed light on how the dynamics of the closet contribute to and encourage situations like this one. Minors who go on Grindr often do so because they “are seeking connection in a world that provides few safe spaces” for them. A Church that has marginalized LGBTQ+ Catholics (including priests) and discouraged them from being transparent can only expect that, right or wrong, they will go to hidden spaces to try to find some connection to their sexuality. Grindr is a dark place, in large part, because LGBTQ+ persons in America have been conditioned to dwell in dark places for so long. I worry that this piece, in its lack of careful handling of delicate matters, contributes to the darkness. Grindr is a symptom, not the disease.

A gay reader can help bring in this and other important perspectives. Any gay reader could review this piece and quickly foresee (1) the ways in which it would be used to attack and abuse LGBTQ+ Catholics, and (2) that the story could have been written in a way to mitigate this. We already know that even tenured professors at the Catholic University of America are willing to misuse and misrepresent data to present “homosexuals” as predators. These are delicate matters, which is one reason why diversity in an institution can be helpful: a variety of viewpoints, perspectives, and backgrounds can help identify unnecessary problems. As far as I can tell, Ed and JD were probably the two best candidates to start a venture like The Pillar. But engaging individuals to review articles on sensitive topics can be helpful to make the decision of whether to dive into controversy more intentional. A gay reviewer of this piece probably could have identified unnecessary flashpoints that would be invisible to a straight author.

The Pillar

At this point, I’ll share my personal view of The Pillar and its editors. Personally, I like them. I do believe the publication occupies a unique space in Catholic media, and I’ve found their news and analysis extremely helpful as a Catholic who doesn’t want to dwell in provocative “hot takes.” They very thoughtfully and carefully covered the story of the sexual abuse of a friend. I think what they did with this piece was a mistake, but I don’t take it to mean that their work should be rejected in toto. I believe they have much to offer the Church, and I look forward to their work in the future.