Is outing a priest good journalism?

The Washington Post notes two independent journalists — using publicly available information — have forced the ouster of a top Catholic priest.

The simplicity of that sentence ignores the ethical and technological issues behind what happened.

According to the newspaper,

(The journalists) 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.

The original report described the priest like this:

[Msgr. Jeffrey] 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 [Church’s sexual abuse] scandals, and coordinating between the conference and the Vatican.

Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.

Meanwhile, and again quoting the Washington Post, one of the reporters justified the taking down of Msgr. Burrill this way:

“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?”

Is there?

Using this litmus test, the reporters would like us to believe that public figures alone are susceptible to this kind of scrutiny. Yet we know that’s not the case: Are we willing to accept that the places we visit could become fodder for public shaming?

Remember what Edward Snowden once said: “Every smartphone … is constantly connected to the nearest cellular tower. … Your phone is sitting there doing nothing, you think, but it’s constantly shouting, saying, ‘I’m here.’

Yes, I know, there are people reading this and thinking ‘well, I have nothing to hide, so I don’t care what anyone knows about me.’ That logic misses the point: It’s your life, your information, your data, but all of it is being given to companies that have one interest: Making money off you. Perhaps more ominously, contending you have nothing to hide means you’re comfortable with the government knowing everything there is about you.

I believe the reporters who went after this priest did so for a purpose not associated with journalism: They wanted to make him an example, so that all other priests would be put on notice that their personal lives were ready to be torn open.

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