A Catholic organization is spending millions to track gay priests on dating apps

A Colorado nonprofit spent $4 million to buy cell phone data and track priests who used gay dating apps and visited gay bars.

A report by The Washington Post about the intendedly-private investigation by Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal was focused on gay priests, a move some Catholic priests are calling an example of homophobia in the church.

“The focus was on gay priests, not straight priests, and certainly not straight lay employees. But, of all the people in the church, why target gay priests? That’s not a hard question. Hatred is the reason for the targeting. The level of homophobia in the church is astounding,” said Jesuit priest James Martin, SJ, in a tweet reacting to the Post’s report.

The Catholic Church has required priests be celibate—meaning, they aren’t allowed to have any sex—for thousands of years (but that could be changing, according to Pope Francis).

The church also does not allow married men to become priests, as that would complicate the celibacy requirement, and still considers homosexuality a sin.

While he didn’t reply to the Post’s request for comment, CLCR president Jayd Hendricks did address the “gay” issue in a piece published by First Things.

“It’s not about straight or gay priests and seminarians. It’s about behavior that harms everyone involved, at some level and in some way, and is a witness against the ministry of the Church,” he said in the First Things piece.

The data used to out the priests was obtained the usual way–buying the data from apps, which are legally allowed to sell.

The issue of data security and privacy has been top of mind for many people in the post-Roe era, but could religious leaders be using user data to discipline people who break their religious promises? Where does privacy come in here?

Knowing that dating apps regularly sell their data also alarmed some people like Daira Emma Hopwood.

“The article kind of buries the lede, which is that (at least) Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, Jack’d, and OkCupid are all openly selling user data to anyone who pays for it,” she said in a tweet.

How does this connect to purity culture and “sexual immorality”?

The type of “purity culture” the Catholic Church enforces puts homosexual sex and sexual abuse of a child under the same umbrella of “sexual immorality,” Kailla Edger explained in a 2010 study, which addressed the often contradictory sexual values Christians endorse.

“For some evangelicals, the consequences of falling victim to lust via sexual immorality range anywhere from disappointing God to marriage problems, drug use, prostitution, becoming a sexual predator, and death,” Edger said in the paper.

While other Catholics have called the actions taken to anonymously track gay priests a violation of privacy, the organization behind the data collection says they view the action as a “service” to parishes.

CLCR doesn’t feel like the tracking is a violation of privacy—it’s accountability for the Catholic Church and for priests. Hendricks said none of the data was shared publicly, only with the parishes where the priests were assigned.

“After all, data is used by all major corporations, so why not the Church?” Hendricks asked in the First Things piece.

He said their only goal was “to love the Church and to help the Church to be holy, with every tool she could be given,” including data.

The nonprofit was founded after the 2018 scandal involving then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was found to have been abusing young men, including a 16-year-old altar boy.

Pope Francis expelled McCarrick in early 2019, after the allegations became public.

While that case that spurred the start of the nonprofit involved sexual abuse of a minor, none of the data collected about gay priests found any evidence of abuse of minors, Hendricks said in his op-ed.

The organization has used data for other analysis, including efforts to determine why people are leaving the Catholic Church.

But this isn’t the first time cell phone data has been used to out a priest

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill was outed through dating app data, and subsequently resigned from his position as administrator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after a Catholic magazine called “The Pillar” had obtained the data from an undisclosed source, and released it in a public report.

The Pillar used Burrill’s location and app data to determine Burrill even used the apps while he was traveling for church-related events.

But not every Catholic blog supported The Pillar’s report based on Burrill’s private data. Mike Lewis, founder of the Catholic news site “Where Peter Is,” told The Washington Post he had complex feelings about the publication of Burrill’s private information.

“Rather than bringing the truth to light, it’s ruining a man’s life,” said Lewis, whose site publishes content defending Pope Francis from ideologically conservative critics.

Burrill returned to ministry at his home diocese in 2022.

In a statement to parishioners, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, Wisconsin addressed Burrill’s new position following an “extended leave.”

“During his leave from active ministry, Monsignor Burrill engaged in a sincere and prayerful effort to strengthen his priestly vows and has favorably responded to every request made by me and by the Diocese,” Callahan told Catholic News Agency.

What about all that data?

CLCR obtained the data about gay priests through completely legal means. There is no law preventing apps like Grindr and OkCupid from selling user data to any interested buyer.

Hendricks said the data was never intended to be public, but only intended to be shared with people in the Church who may want to know the information.

The Post reported some of the same people involved in the recently revealed app data project were also involved in outing Burrill.

“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,” Justin Sherman, a senior fellow at Duke University’s public policy school, who focuses on data privacy issues told the Post. The number of data privacy laws in the country, he said, “you can count them on one or two hands.”

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

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