Jul 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Top U.S. Catholic Church official resigns over report linking him to gay bars and Grindr

 A man is holding a rosary in the hands of the black Madonna while she is changing clothes.

Photo: Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced Tuesday the resignation of its top administrator for "possible improper behavior" after an outlet linked Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill's phone activity to gay bars and the LGBTQ dating app Grindr.

Why it matters: The small Catholic outlet, The Pillar, was able to achieve this by obtaining "anonymized" data from a broker, and having a consulting firm analyze it and link it to the church official — showing how easy and legally this can now be done.

Driving the news: The USCCB issued a statement confirming Burrill's resignation to the National Catholic Reporter just before The Pillar published its report on Burrill, a priest affiliated with the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

  • "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," The Pillar reported.
  • "The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar conveys mobile app date 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."

Context: Catholic doctrine considers sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage a sin.

The big picture: Via the Washington Post, "Privacy experts have long raised concerns about 'anonymized' data collected by apps and sold to or shared with aggregators and marketing companies.

"While the information is typically stripped of obviously identifying fields, like a user’s name or phone number, it can contain everything from age and gender to a device ID. It’s possible for experts to de-anonymize some of this data and connect it to real people."

What they're saying: USCCB spokesperson Chieko Noguchi told WashPost that Burrill had decided to resign, "effective immediately," ahead of the report's publication "to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference."

  • The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and leading advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic Church, posted a statement to Facebook criticizing the Pillar's report:
  • Burrill and The Pillar could not immediately be reached for comment.
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