Gawker lacked a shred of news value for its story, which led to an award (eventually reduced to $31 million) that drove it under. The Pillar has a better case for its article’s news value, saying that while Burrill was involved in important meetings at USCCB and in Rome on clergy sexual abuse of minors, “Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.”
One can be glad that journalists who are faithful Catholics—such as The Pillar founders JD Flynn and Ed Condon—would want to call powerful clergy to account with the ultimate aim of protecting children. But they just don’t have the facts to justify making this accusation, an assertion needed to boost the story’s news value. The Pillar devotes about a thousand words of a roughly 2,800-word article presenting a very one-sided argument that Burrill may possibly have used his app to connect with minors for sex, despite acknowledging there was “no evidence” after scrutinizing a year’s worth of his daily travels. My reaction to this was: Where was the copy desk on this? Perhaps there isn’t one at The Pillar.
Flynn, formerly editor of EWTN’s Catholic News Agency and former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, and Condon, who previously worked with Flynn at CNA, started The Pillar in January with a soaring expression of their journalistic values:
We believe that serious Catholic journalism is a service to Christ and the Church—and that journalism can be done in a uniquely Catholic way, which takes the doctrine of the Catholic Church to be true, which treats people with respect, and which looks for the truth above all else, without getting bogged down in partisan agendas or mudslinging.
We think the story matters more than we do, and we’d rather tell you the facts than tell you what we think. We aim to focus on the facts, and to provide the context and background that helps make sense of them. The Pillar upholds the highest standards of journalistic independence and craftsmanship. We’re independent of any ecclesial agenda but the holiness of the Church and its members—we won’t be afraid to tell the stories that need to be told, but we’ll tell them with integrity and fairness.
The Burrill story flunks these standards in various ways. If it provided the context and background needed to understand the facts reported, it would have at least included the mainstream view—featured in the John Jay College study done for the USCCB—that homosexual priests were no more likely to sexually abuse minors than heterosexual priests.
If the story were crafted properly, the writers would have made some effort to identify the source of the “commercially available” data it used. Even if the source was granted anonymity, it was necessary to give some hint of what the source’s agenda might be, as well as the reason the source wanted to be anonymous (assuming that is the case). For that we are left to read a story that EWTN executive Alejandro Bermudez published with CNA, The Pillar duo’s former employer, on July 19. It disclosed that in 2018 “a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy approached some Church individuals and organizations, including Catholic News Agency” with the app data. That vaguely signals some kind of agenda, which is more than the Pillar story acknowledged. (CNA took a pass on the story.)
If The Pillar were upholding the highest standards of journalistic independence, it would disclose who its funders are and identify any who might have funded the expensive business of acquiring such “commercially available” data. The story seems to be crafted to endorse the “ecclesial agenda” of the source who provided the data, presumably an agenda that rejects the John Jay study’s conclusions on the sexuality of gay priests.
It’s especially necessary for The Pillar to provide greater disclosure given the past employment of Flynn and Condon. Both are canon lawyers who have worked within the Church’s legal system. Condon’s online bio notes that he is a practicing canon lawyer who has worked in dioceses on three continents and in the Holy See. Flynn came to journalism at EWTN already being identified with the conservative culture warriors among the U.S. Catholic bishops, having served as a key aide to Denver Archbishops Charles Chaput and Samuel Aquila, and then James Conley, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska. Somehow the story about Burrill—whom Flynn described in a CNA column last summer as “theologically orthodox, intelligent, and pastoral”—detours to repeat past criticism of one of the leading liberal bishops, Robert McElroy of San Diego.
The Pillar has sought to justify its poor journalistic judgment by noting that the New York Times ran a piece in February “in which reporters used app signal data to identify and name a participant in the January U.S. Capitol incursion, even after he denied participation,” and “did not prompt similar reaction.” But the Times piece, written not by news reporters but writers from the opinion staff, was crafted more responsibly. Information was provided on the source’s motives, and the reason that anonymity was granted. It acknowledges that the location data can be imprecise, and that it could not confirm that the one person identified in the story was really inside the Capitol on January 6. Ultimately, it was not an investigation aimed at piercing the privacy of individuals who allegedly tried to disrupt the electoral process but “a demonstration of the looming threat to our liberties posed by a surveillance economy that monetizes the movements of the righteous and the wicked alike.” The Pillar has led us further down that road.
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