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Ignoring predators, a Catholic group used technology to spy on gay priests
A Denver non-profit has spent millions of dollars to track priests who may be seeking trysts with other men
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In July of 2021, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the general secretary of the (very conservative) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, resigned from that position after an outside group tracking his phone found that he was frequenting gay bars and using the hookup app Grindr to presumably meet other men.
Most headlines predictably focused on the hypocrisy of a conservative Catholic leader—someone who took a vow of celibacy and actively opposes LGBTQ rights—allegedly using an app to meet men for sex. But it raised other questions, too. For example, was it ethical to “out” someone for hypocrisy about sex and homosexuality instead of focusing on sexual abuse or any other “sins” the Church opposes? As one theology professor noted, we’re all sinners and “Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny The Pillar has applied to Burrill.” Burrill didn’t harm anyone, the professor argued, so his “sin” shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.
Beyond the ethics, though, where did this information even come from? It was disturbing that someone had the ability to spy on unsuspecting priests.
At the time, the Catholic News Agency said that, in 2018, they were approached by an individual who supposedly had the technology to identify clergy members who used Grindr or Tinder, with the ability to “pinpoint their locations” (to see if they were, hypothetically, going to a gay bar or a place like that). The CNA refused the offer.
But a conservative website called The Pillar said yes. That’s the outlet that ultimately broke the news about Burrill.
According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 — at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities.
Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.
On June 20, 2018, the day the McCarrick revelations became public, the mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted hookup app signals at the USCCB staff residence, and from a street in a residential Washington neighborhood. He traveled to Las Vegas shortly thereafter, data records show.
On June 22, the mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted signals from Entourage, which bills itself as Las Vegas’ “gay bathhouse.”
The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar conveys mobile app data signals during two 26-week periods, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 and 2020. The data was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.
The Pillar never explained who this “data vendor” was. But days later, they wrote about how some priests in the Archdiocese of Newark were allegedly using Grindr. They also said that, in 2018, data showed “at least 32 mobile devices… from within areas of Vatican City that are off-limit to tourists” were using similar dating apps.
Scandalous if true. But also… the whole thing felt sketchy as hell. Of all the ways priests don’t live up to their supposed values, their desire to meet up for consensual sex with other men was the least of my worries.
In any case, it’s been nearly two years since that Burrill story broke, and we haven’t heard of other priests outed by the data. We also haven’t learned much about where the data came from.
Now we have some answers.
In an astonishing report (gift article) from Michelle Boorstein and Heather Kelly of the Washington Post, we find out that conservative Catholic donors in Colorado poured millions of dollars into that spying technology in order to share it with bishops around the country. Burrill was just the tip of the iceberg.
The secretive effort was the work of a Denver nonprofit called Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal, whose trustees are philanthropists Mark Bauman, John Martin and Tim Reichert, according to public records, an audio recording of the nonprofit’s president discussing its mission and other documents. The use of data is emblematic of a new surveillance frontier in which private individuals can potentially track other Americans’ locations and activities using commercially available information. No U.S. data privacy laws prohibit the sale of this data.
The goal was to give the data to bishops—evidence that their priests were violating their oaths—to help them better train those priests in the future. And they had the resources to do it: The group spent over $4,000,000, with a lot of it being used to purchase and analyze the data, pay staff, and hire attorneys.
The group’s president, Jayd Henricks, wouldn’t speak with the Post’s reporters, but he preemptively defended their actions in a separate piece published on the conservative site First Things on Wednesday. He said the group was formed in the wake of allegations involving former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who “had been grooming and sexually abusing young men for decades.” To avoid similar stories, they wanted to “spot dangers that could lead to more scandal and heartache for the Church down the line.”
It’s true, as part of our data analysis work, we learned that some clergy were publicly advertising their interest in actions that contradicted their promises of celibacy. Sadly, in some places, we could scarcely avoid seeing it. And there have been news reports about priests arrested for criminal use of such apps. All of that is a problem—one we as a Church can choose to acknowledge and confront, or not.
Publicly available data, bought in the ordinary way, was given to us at CLCR, and as we analyzed it, it became clear that heterosexual and homosexual hookup apps were used by some seminarians and some priests in some places, and with volumes and patterns suggesting those were not isolated moral lapses by individuals.
Just to point out the obvious, a priest having a same-sex hookup may be an ethical lapse given the Church’s beliefs but it’s not a danger to anyone. Henricks says he wanted to prevent another McCarrick-like situation, but catching a priest on Grindr isn’t anywhere in the ballpark of sexually abusing a child. Henricks claims they wanted to use the technology to decide “what sorts of church activities draw people to a parish” and “when and how liturgies are scheduled,” but that’s a smokescreen. Once they knew they could possibly “out” sexually repressed priests, that became its main function. Henricks is basically arguing that he got a Playboy subscription for the articles; no one should buy that excuse.
While The Pillar never said where its data came from, the Post spoke with people connected with CLCR who “were involved” in Burrill’s outing.
According to two separate reports prepared for bishops and reviewed by The Post, the group says it obtained data that spans 2018 through 2021 for multiple dating and hookup apps including Grindr, Scruff, Growlr and Jack’d, all used by gay men, as well as OkCupid, a major site for people of various sexualities. But most of the data appears to be from Grindr, and those familiar with the project said the organizers’ focus was gay priests.
No shock there. We’ve long know that Catholic Church officials care far more about homosexuality than every other alleged “sin.” They’ll downplay sexual abuse but flip out over consensual same-sex play.
But it still raises the question of where this data came from. What sort of technology lets you track people using their phones?
One report prepared for bishops says the group’s sources are data brokers who got the information from ad exchanges, which are sites where ads are bought and sold in real time, like a stock market. The group cross-referenced location data from the apps and other details with locations of church residences, workplaces and seminaries to find clergy who were allegedly active on the apps, according to one of the reports and also the audiotape of the group’s president.
[Justin Sherman, a senior fellow at Duke University’s public policy school, who focuses on data privacy issues] said police departments have bought data about citizens instead of seeking a warrant, domestic abusers have accessed data about their victims, and antiabortion activists have used data to target people who visit clinics.
That’s a far cry, however, from a private group purchasing the data with the goal of targeting individuals. Rather than looking for trends, if you have enough data, it’s theoretically possible to identify the actions of individuals. If you knew someone visited a diocese, or stayed overnight in a rectory, and also walked over to a gay bar the next day, you don’t need to know the person’s name to narrow down your list of suspects. When you toss in more specific details about the kind of phone and the internet service provider, that short list can be whittled down even further. (Most of the dating apps, including Grindr, say they no longer sell hyper-specific tracking data to third parties, according to the Post.)
Burrill may be the only person we know suffered any consequences for what he did, but so far, it’s not clear if other people (with less prominence) have been pressured out of the priesthood. Keep in mind it’s arguably a sin to spy on people, too. But like so many Christians who claim all sins are equally awful, they always treat some sins as worse than others.
Either way, it’s giving right-wing Catholics in Colorado the power to control the actions of the Church by handing over supposed evidence of sexual hypocrisy and forcing officials to take swift action.
Just imagine if Catholics with money, power, and tech savvy spent this much energy going after actual predators instead of priests who just wanted a consensual release. But much like the Vatican hierarchy, even these lay Catholics don’t really give a damn about child safety or religious ideals. They want to ruin the lives of gay people under the guise of purifying the Church. Because the Vatican’s rules are so strict in that regard—famously anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-sex—the Church has created a giant opening for this kind of spying to be justified.