Catholic group spent millions on app data that tracked gay priests
A group of conservative Colorado Catholics has spent millions of dollars to buy mobile app tracking data that identified priests who used gay dating and hookup apps and then shared it with bishops around the country.
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 project’s aim, according to tax records, is to “empower the church to carry out its mission” by giving bishops “evidence-based resources” with which to identify weaknesses in how they train priests.
Henricks on Wednesday posted a first-person piece on the site First Things, saying he was proud to be part of the group, whose purpose was “to love the Church and to help the Church to be holy, with every tool she could be given,” including data. He wrote that the group has done other research, in addition to the analysis of dating and hookup apps.
Case of high-ranking cleric allegedly tracked on Grindr app poses Rorschach test for Catholics
Some of the men who are part of the Renewal project were also involved in the July 2021 outing of a prominent priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, according to the two people with firsthand knowledge of the project and comments by the group’s president on the audio recording. Burrill, who declined to comment for this story, resigned from his post as the top administrator at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) after a Catholic news site, the Pillar, said it had mobile app data showing he was a regular on Grindr and had gone to a gay bar and a gay bathhouse and spa. The Pillar did not say where its data came from.
The anonymous tracking of a gay priest through his phone made news around the world, with critics calling it a kind of weaponized, anti-gay surveillance.
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.
In the First Things piece, Henricks said: “It’s not about straight or gay priests and seminarians. It’s about behavior that harms everyone involved, at some level and in some way, and is a witness against the ministry of the Church.”
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.
Sherman 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.
Still, some have celebrated Burrill’s outing as a way to purify the church by making other clerics more fearful of breaking their promise of celibacy.
The Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City canon lawyer who offers church commentary on the Catholic channel EWTN and Fox News, said Burrill being a priest in a prominent role makes any misbehavior “a much greater scandal” and essentially eliminates his right to privacy.
“The promise of celibacy is a public act, it’s not a private commitment. It’s of public interest when those are violated in a scandalous way,” he said.
The Renewal group has spent at least $4 million, according to the recording of Henricks, and approached more than a dozen bishops with the information. It’s not clear what impact the project is having on clergy who the data suggests have actively used a dating or hookup app on their phone. Except for Burrill, it is not known whether the data has led to the resignation or termination of any other priests or seminarians. One of the two people familiar with the project said people may be kept from promotions or wind up in early retirement but not know why.
Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal opened for business in June 2019, incorporation records show. The nonprofit was created to “support the commitment of Roman Catholic clergy to living the teachings of the church,” its 2019 tax filing states. Its purpose is “to work systematically with bishops, priests, religious and seminarians to … provide evidence-based resources to bishops that enable them to effectively judge and support quality formation practices, and [to] identify weaknesses in current formation practices and priestly life.”
Murray, the New York City priest, noted that church law calls for clerics to “behave with due prudence toward persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.”
The tracking and outing of Burrill was “a very good thing,” he said.
Murray, like many Catholic conservatives, is concerned about increased acceptance of LGBTQ relationships in the church. That said, it’s “gaslighting” to call stories focused on Grindr anti-gay, he said. “The issue is unchastity and the scandal given to the people in the pews.”