Top Catholic priest resigns after phone data tracked to Grindr
By Hannah Frishberg
July 21, 2021 | 12:47pm
Msgr. Jeffrey D. Burrill in 2018. Burrill resigned this month following allegations that his phone data had been tracked to prove he regularly used the dating app Grindr and frequented gay bars. Bob Roller/CNS
Thanks to data streams, the Lord is no longer the only omniscient one.
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the top administrator for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), resigned from the position this week following claims he regularly used the queer dating app Grindr and went to gay bars. The allegations were put forward by Catholic news site the Pillar, which alleges to have accessed the priest’s cellphone data, where it claims to have found evidence of his activity in both virtual and physical gay forums.
“According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, 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. “Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity.”
The Wisconsin-based priest’s alleged “activity” included attending a “gay bathhouse” in Las Vegas.
“On Monday, we became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by Msgr. Burrill,” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles wrote in a Tuesday memo obtained by the National Catholic Reporter. “What was shared with us did not include allegations of misconduct with minors. However, in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference, Monsignor has resigned effective immediately.”
(Homosexuality, along with all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage, is considered a sin in Catholic doctrine.)
However, a wave of condemnation has followed the Pillar’s report and its “unethical, homophobic” use of personal data.
“I am a sinner. So are you. So is Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill. Not one of us has a personal life that would withstand the sort of scrutiny the Pillar has applied to Burrill,” Steven P. Millies, director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, wrote in an op-ed response published by the National Catholic Reporter.
“[The Pillar] spied on Msgr. Burrill (more accurately, it using ‘mined data’ from an unnamed source who spied on him) to reveal that, apparently, he had broken his promise of celibacy,” responded Jesuit priest James Martin in a viral Facebook post. “The article, which I will not link to, repeatedly conflated homosexuality with pedophilia, all under the guise of a journalistic ‘investigation.’ ”
Beyond the religious community, privacy experts also denounced the Pillar’s use of Burrill’s data.
The outlet’s de-anonymizing and public reporting on Burrill’s data — which it stated it obtained using Grindr-based data streams and hired an independent firm to authenticate — “unleashes this chain that a user cannot stop because they don’t even know that it was collected in the first place and they have no idea where this data actually lives,” Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer of the privacy-protection firm Disconnect, told the Washington Post. “But it’s out there, and it’s for sale.”
Federal law does not prohibit this data from being sold.
Grindr, meanwhile, denied that its data was publicly accessible.
“The alleged activities listed in that unattributed blog post are infeasible from a technical standpoint and incredibly unlikely to occur,” a Grindr spokeswoman told the Washington Post in a statement Tuesday. “There is absolutely no evidence supporting the allegations of improper data collection or usage related to the Grindr app as purported.”
The USCCB sent The Post the following statement in response to a request for comment: “On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by its general secretary, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill. What was shared with us did not include allegations of misconduct with minors. However, in order to avoid becoming a distraction to the operations and ongoing work of the Conference, Monsignor Burrill has resigned, effective immediately. The Conference takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and will pursue all appropriate steps to address them.”
Burrill did not respond.