A conservative Catholic non-profit organization based in Colorado, Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal, has spent millions on a project that identified priests using gay hookup and dating apps and shared the data with bishops nationwide. The project, aimed at empowering the Church to carry out its mission and providing bishops with evidence-based resources to identify weaknesses in current training, has raised concerns among the LGBTQ+ community and privacy specialists. The impact of the data on priests remains unclear, with fears that the information discovered may cause Catholic members not to receive promotions or be pushed into early retirement.
The Renewal project has reportedly spent at least $4 million on identifying priests using gay dating and hookup apps, and the data has been shared with dozens of bishops across the country. LGBTQ+ advocates and privacy specialists are denouncing the project as an invasion of privacy targeting vulnerable people. Justin Sherman, a senior fellow at Duke University’s public policy school and an expert on data privacy issues, said that the story’s power is that it links these practices to a specific person or group of people. However, data privacy laws in the country are limited, with only a few that can be counted on one or two hands.
The Renewal project was also involved in the outing of a prominent Catholic pastor, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, who 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 to a gay bar and bathhouse. The latest discovery of mobile app tracking, along with Burrill’s resignation, is raising alarms among LGBTQ+ advocates and privacy specialists.
While 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, several requests for an interview or comment were not returned. In a first-person piece published on the blog First Things, Henricks wrote that he has been proud to be part of the group and that data is used by all major corporations, so why not the Church? He also added that the group has collected research other than app data.
However, some in the Catholic Church have criticized the use of surveillance to target priests because of their sexual orientation. A USCCB member who knows Burrill and described the intense emotional distress he endured after his Grindr online activity was outed said that revealing information that harms a person’s reputation without an objectively valid reason, even if it’s true, is considered a sin.