Catholic Church leaders are reportedly worried that the recent use of Grindr data to out a senior American official could lead to further outings among the church’s hierarchy.
In July, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — the church’s official mouthpiece in the U.S. — resigned after he was accused of using Grindr and visiting gay bars.
Catholic publication The Pillar alleged that it had accessed “commercially available records of app signal data” from Grindr, showing Burrill’s phone “emitting hookup app signals” at his USCCB office, private homes, gay bars, and gay bathhouses.
The Pillar declined to give specifics on how it had accessed Burrill’s data, or what methods were used to determine his location, but subsequent reporting from the conservative blog has apparently put Catholic officials in the U.S. and at the Vatican “on edge,” the New York Times reports.
After publishing its claims about Burrill, The Pillar alleged to have accessed data which implicated someone in the Archdiocese of Newark between 2018 and 2020.
Another report by The Pillar claimed that data from 2018 showed at least 32 smartphones emitting dating app signals in areas of the Vatican closed to tourists.
Half of those devices were specifically accessing Grindr, The Pillar claimed, while the other 16 were accessing “other location-based hookup or dating apps, both heterosexual and homosexual.”
The Times reports that Vatican officials met with representatives from The Pillar in June, but a spokesman declined to say if any subsequent investigations had been launched.
Officials at the Newark archdiocese were ordered not to talk to journalists, but the Times said that some anonymously expressed “dismay at the use of cellphone data to track priests.”
“It can be terribly threatening,” Father Bob Bonnot, executive director of the Association of Catholic Priests, told the Times. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”
The Pillar’s publishing of data allegedly tied to Burrill was further complicated by the attempt to link sexuality to reports about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, with one person telling The Pillar that using Grindr was “a step away from sexual predation.”
That led to Ed Condon and J.D. Flynn, The Pillar’s editors, being accused of trying to conflate “homosexuality and pedophilia” through the publishing of Grindr data.
Both men are former employees of the right-wing Catholic News Agency, but allegedly started The Pillar to investigate wrongdoing among church leaders.
Flynn has previously suggested in a podcast that allowing clerics who are “bound to celibacy” to engage in “immoral and illicit sexual behavior” could “lead to a broad sense of tolerance for any number or kinds of sexual sins.”
The Times noted that Catholic conservatives have engaged in “a longstanding effort…to blame the church sex abuse crisis on the presence of gay men in the priesthood.”
Further complicating matters is that neither Condon or Flynn has been willing to divulge specifics about what data they have accessed or how they were able to specifically identify Catholic Church officials.
Grindr slammed the initial release of Burrill’s alleged data, calling it “homophobic” and saying the company didn’t believe that Grindr was the source of the data, adding in a statement “[the] pieces simply do not add up.”
In a follow-up blog post, Grindr said it had launched an investigation to discern how The Pillar could have accessed data that could specifically identify its users and their location.
“The first step is to try to determine what actually occurred, which is difficult as the bloggers themselves have provided vague and incomplete descriptions of their work,” Grindr CEO Jeff Bonforte wrote.
However, Bonforte noted that it was “clear” that The Pillar’s data access “involved much more than just a small blog.”
Bonforte linked to a Catholic News Agency report that, in 2018, the news organization was approached by a group “motivated by ‘Church reform.'”
They tried to “peddle a surveillance method that promised to uncover church members who used ‘hook-up apps such as Grindr and Tinder,'” CNA said.
CNA, which employed Condon and Flynn as editors at the time, said that it rejected the data because it was “hard to make the case that [the information] was acquired in a completely legal and moral manner.”
Alejandro Bermudez, executive editor of Catholic News Agency, told the Times that the data being offered was not about Burrill, but another “nationally prominent priest.” He said that neither Condon nor Flynn were consulted about the data offer.
Grindr offered three possible sources for the data used to implicate Burrill, noting that none would have involved a direct breach of Grindr, instead pointing to network providers, location data brokers, and ad networks as possible sources.
Grindr noted that it stopped “sharing age, gender, or location information with any of our ad partners” in 2020.
“We also do not share any information users put in their profiles with ad partners. None,” Bonforte wrote. “This leaves almost no data for 3rd parties to use in ad targeting on Grindr, and, as a result, our third party ads are very untargeted.”
Thus far, the Pillar has yet to publish data allegedly obtained from Grindr beyond 2020.
Grindr has previously faced multiple allegations of exposing its users’ sensitive data. In January, Norway’s Data Protection Authority threatened Grindr with a $12 million fine and accused it of illegally sharing personal data from users of the free version of the app with third-party companies.
Norway’s Consumer Council also found that Grindr was sharing sensitive user data to more than a dozen companies, including location data, sexuality, and other information.
Research in 2019 also found that Grindr was exposing users’ exact location, with researchers claiming that the company had known about the flaw for years, but refused to fix it.
In 2018, Grindr faced similar scrutiny after it admitted to sharing users’ HIV status with two outside companies for testing purposes.
The data sharing arrangement allowed the companies to see a user’s HIV status and their “last tested date,” for those who are HIV-negative or on pre-exposure prophylaxis.
Grindr said at the time that the firms were required to provide “the highest level of confidentiality, data security and use privacy,” but the data being sent — including HIV status, users’ GPS data, phone ID, and email — could be used to identify specific users.
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