What the resignation of a US Catholic Church monsignor might say about data privacy

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“The Pillar,” a Catholic news site, claims that Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill used Grindr and visited gay bars. The site said it used his cell phone location data to discover this. Photo by Shutterstock.

Jeffrey Burrill, a U.S. Catholic Church monsignor, resigned this week after the Catholic news site called “The Pillar” alleged he frequently used the gay hook-up app Grindr and visited gay bars. The site says it obtained his cell phone location data (though hasn’t revealed how exactly). The details around these allegations have not been corroborated. But the incident raises concerns about data privacy — and warnings of more privacy invasion incidents to come. 

The story has caught so much attention not only because of its salacious nature, but what the use of this type of data could mean in the future. That’s according to Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein

“Whatever your perspective is on young priests using Grindr, it's a really dramatic kind of image to see private surveillance basically of individual citizens done by an organization that's kind of purporting to be a news organization,” Boorstein says. “It’s the type of thing that you would see in the news, maybe about a government and be alarmed.”

“The Pillar” is a Catholic newsletter run by a group of lawyers who broke away from the Catholic News Agency and typically work on investigative and accountability reporting. Boorstein says the story reflects the scrutiny the Church has amassed recently.

“You've had Americans really losing faith in religious institutions in recent decades, including Catholics. Whether it's sex abuse crisis or conservatives who are very worried about Francis, who they think is pushing the church in a direction they don't believe in, they would see this as reform. … They would say, ‘Look, the adults and the bosses are not taking care of things. We've had these different scandals, and it's up to the lay people to do this kind of thing. And therefore, it’s justified because it's in the public interest.”  

Boorstein notes this isn't the first time Grindr has been in hot water over its use and sharing of people’s data. She says the company has been in court in other countries over the way they sell data. 

“What's actually happening to our data? When you click ok, or what are the legal rules around which they can use it? And can people bust through those guardrails that apps say they've set up? So it seems like it's not clear at the moment.”