A Colorado Catholic group spent millions tracking clerics who used mostly gay “hookup apps” — then outing them to bishops.
The head of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal admitted its secretive research in a lengthy response Thursday to an exposé by The Washington Post.
The DC paper detailed how the Denver-based nonprofit spent at least $4 million buying up data mostly from Grindr, but also from Scruff, Growlr, Jack’d and OkCupid.
Some of those involved in the group were directly behind the outing of Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, who resigned in July 2021 over a report that he’d used Grindr and gone to a gay bar and bathhouse, the paper said.
Renewal’s president, Jayd Henricks, confirmed the work in an op-ed on First Things, saying he felt “blessed” to help and promising that he’d been “meticulous to ensure that we were doing things by the book.”
“The purpose was simple: to love the Church and to help the Church to be holy, with every tool she could be given,” Henricks said — including “the darker side of technology.”
“Trafficking in obscene content, and even criminal content, is a risk to the Church and her children,” he wrote of earlier “heart-wrenching wake-up” calls of grooming and abuse.
“When we learned legal ways to understand risks to the health of the Church beset by technology — including the use of hookup apps by clerics— we studied that.
“We learned some things. And we shared what we learned directly with bishops,” Henricks admitted.
“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.”
Renewel analyzed “publicly available data, bought in the ordinary way” to show how “heterosexual and homosexual hookup apps were used” in ways that “were not isolated moral lapses.”
“It should be noted that these sorts of hookup apps are designed specifically for casual, anonymous sexual encounters,” Henricks wrote.
“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.”
The data was not made public, the group’s leader stressed, saying it was instead shared with the “proper authority of rectors and bishops to act prudentially.”
Former Monsignor Burrill, the then-top administrator for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), did not comment to The Washington Post about his downfall seemingly at the hands of the group.
But Bennett Cyphers, a special adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called Burrill’s ouster “a character assassination of a private citizen for some kind of political reason.”
“It was the first needle-in-a-haystack case, where someone sifts through millions of locations in apps and looks for one person and then tries to use that info to impeach them,” Cyphers told the paper.
Others, however, celebrated Burrill’s exit as upholding the purity of the church.
“The promise of celibacy is a public act, it’s not a private commitment,” the Rev. Gerald Murray, a New York City canon lawyer, told the paper, calling Burrill’s outing “a very good thing.”
“It’s of public interest when those are violated in a scandalous way,” he said.
Grindr said it was “infuriated by the actions of these anti-LGBTQ vigilantes.”
“Grindr has and will continue to push the industry to keep bad actors out of the ad tech ecosystem, particularly on behalf of the LGBTQ community,” spokesman Patrick Lenihan told the DC paper.
“All this group is doing is hurting people.”
The app said it stopped sharing location information in early 2020, and now only shares limited information with ad partners.
OkCupid owner Match Group said that “location data is obfuscated within a kilometer for safety reasons.”
Perry Street Software, which owns Jack’d and Scruff, said it has also removed third-party ad networks.
“Ad networks will always implicitly expose location data, which is why today we do all of our advertising in-house and share no data with our advertisers,” CEO Eric Silverberg told The Washington Post.
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