US church official resigns after news outlet uses phone data to out him as Grindr user

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The top administrator of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops resigned after cellphone data revealed that he was a frequent user of Grindr, the queer dating app, and regularly visited gay bars.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the organization announced that Monsignor Jeffrey Burill had resigned as its general secretary after the group learned of “impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior”.

Since last November, Burill has been the organization’s top administrator. As general secretary, he was in charge of coordinating all administrative work and planning for the conference, which is the country’s network for Catholic bishops.

The Catholic media outlet The Pillar first detected Burill’s activities by obtaining device location data from a data vendor before hiring a consulting firm to analyze the records.

“According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020,” The Pillar reported. “Data app signals suggest he was at the same time engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity,” it added.

In addition, data obtained by The Pillar revealed that in June 2018, “the mobile device correlated to Burill emitted signals from Entourage, which bills itself as Las Vegas’s ‘gay bathhouse.’”

As a priest, Burill is required to take a vow of celibacy. Additionally, many Catholic teachings consider sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage sinful.

There currently are no federal laws that prohibit the purchase of “anonymized” data. Nevertheless, privacy experts have repeatedly raised concerns about such data collected by apps and then shared with advertising companies.

Even though obvious information such as name and phone numbers can be omitted, anonymized data can still include other crucial information such as gender, age and device ID. As a result, some researchers maintain that anonymizing data is practically impossible.

Grindr has described The Pillar’s reporting as “homophobic” and denied that its data could be publicly accessed. “The alleged activities listed in that unattributed blog post are infeasible from a technical standpoint and incredibly unlikely to occur,” a Grindr spokesperson said.

The Rev James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic church, also criticized The Pillar’s investigation.

In a Facebook statement, Martin wrote, “The article...repeatedly conflated homosexuality with pedophilia... These witch hunts, usually aimed at vulnerable people working for the church, or targeting people that the authors don’t agree with or just don’t like, must end.”

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