After Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops resigned last month due to accusations of using Grindr and visiting gay bars, Catholic Church leaders are reportedly worried that recent access to the gay hookup app’s data could lead to further outings.
Catholic media organization The Pillar obtained analyses of cellphone data that apparently show priests at multiple levels of the Catholic hierarchy in both the United States and the Vatican using Grindr. Allegedly, “commercially available records of app signal data” was gathered, which showed Burrill’s phone “emitting hookup app signals” at his USCCB office, private homes, gay bars, and gay bathhouses.
The Pillar has declined to provide specific details on how it accessed Burrill’s data and location spots, but according to The New York Times, subsequent reporting from the blog has put Catholic officials “on edge.”
Days later after Burrill’s claims, a second report was published about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark. A third report, published days after the second, claimed that at least 32 mobile devices emitted dating app signals in 2018 from areas within Vatican City that are off-limit to tourists.
The reports made by The Pillar have introduced a potentially powerful new weapon in the culture war between supporters of Pope Francis and his conservative critics.
“When there is reporting out there that claims to expose activity like this in parishes around the country and also on Vatican grounds, that is a five-alarm fire for church officials,” John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group, told the Times.
It has been reported that Vatican officials met with representatives from The Pillar in June, but a spokesman declined to say if any subsequent investigations have been launched. Officials at the Newark archdiocese were also ordered not to talk to journalists, but some have anonymously expressed “dismay at the use of cellphone data to track priests.”
“It can be terribly threatening,” Father Bob Bonnot, executive director of the Association of Catholic Priests, told the Times. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”
The Pillar’s publishing of data was further complicated by the attempt to link sexuality to reports of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, with one person telling The Pillar that using Grindr was “a step away from sexual predation.” Ed Condon and J.D. Flynn, The Pillar’s editors, are being accused of trying to conflate “homosexuality and pedophilia” through the publishing of Grindr data.
The conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is part of a longstanding effort by Catholic conservatives to blame the church sex abuse crisis on the presence of gay men in the priesthood.
Condon and Flynn are both former employees of the right-wing Catholic News Agency, but allegedly started The Pillar to investigate wrongdoing among church leaders. Flynn has previously suggested in a podcast that allowing clerics who are “bound to celibacy” to engage in “immoral and illicit sexual behavior” could “lead to a broad sense of tolerance for any number or kinds of sexual sins.”
Grindr has slammed the initial release of Burrill’s alleged data, calling it “homophobic” and has launched an investigation to discern how The Pillar could have accessed data that could specifically identify its users and their location.
“The first step is to try to determine what actually occurred, which is difficult as the bloggers themselves have provided vague and incomplete descriptions of their work,” Grindr CEO Jeff Bonforte said in a statement.
The app offered three possible sources for the data used to implicate Burrill, noting that one would have involved a direct breach of Grindr, instead pointing to network providers, location data brokers, and ad networks as possible sources.
“We also do not share any information users put in their profiles with ad partners. None,” Bonforte wrote. “This leaves almost no data for 3rd parties to use in ad targeting on Grindr, and, as a result, our third party ads are very untargeted.”
Thus far, the Pillar has yet to publish data allegedly obtained from Grindr beyond 2020.