A conservative Catholic group based in Colorado spent millions to obtain data that identified priests using gay hookup and dating apps, later sharing the data with bishops nationwide.
The project was carried out by conservative non-profit Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal, the Washington Post first reported.
According to tax records obtained by the Post, the project’s mission is to “empower the church to carry out its mission” and provide bishops with “evidence-based resources” to help further identify weaknesses in current training.
The group has reportedly spent at least $4m on the project and shared the information with dozens of bishops across the country.
The impact the data will have on priests is unclear. A person who spoke with the Post anonymously said that information discovered via the Renewal project may cause Catholic members not to receive promotions or to be pushed into an early retirement.
Participants in the Renewal project were also said to be involved in the outing of a prominent Catholic pastor.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill stepped down from his post as secretary general of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in July 2021 after a Catholic news site, the Pillar, used commercially available data to track his use of gay hookup apps and visits he paid to a gay bar and bathhouse.
Burrill’s resignation and the latest discovery of mobile app tracking is raising alarms among LGBTQ+ advocates and privacy specialists who decry it as an invasion of privacy that is targeting vulnerable people.
“The power of this story is that you don’t often see where these practices are linked to a specific person or group of people. Here, you can clearly see the link,” said Justin Sherman, a senior fellow at Duke University’s public policy school and expert on data privacy issues, to the Post.
Sherman added that data privacy laws in the country are limited, noting: “You can count them on one or two hands.”
A spokesperson for Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal told the Post that the nonprofit’s president, Jayd Henricks, would give an interview about the project. But several requests for an interview or comment were not returned.
In a first-person piece published on Wednesday on the blog First Things, Henricks wrote that he has “been proud to be a part of [the] group”.
“After all, data is used by all major corporations, so why not the Church?” wrote Henricks.
Henricks also added that the group has collected research other than the app data.
Some in the Catholic church criticized the use of surveillance to target priests because of their sexual orientation.
“Revealing information that harms a person’s reputation without an objectively valid reason – even if it’s true – is considered a sin,” said a USCCB member who knows Burrill and described the “intense emotional distress” he endured after his Grindr online activity was outed.
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