Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the vast extent to which governments and tech companies collect data on each and every one of us, people should have assumed that anything they do is known or inferable since communication technology is so all-encompassing that we all leave a trail almost wherever we go and whatever we do. So we should live as if the details of our lives can be revealed at any time. This is not a good way to live but it is the reality.
But this causes a problem for those who are pretty much forced to live part of their lives in secret. This is the case for gay Catholic priests. While we may wonder why they joined and stay in an institution that shuns them just for who they are, there are plenty of scenarios by which someone could end up being a prominent member of an organization that discriminates against people like them and not everyone is in a position to quit. But that does not mean that they deserve to be outed for their private activities, as happened with a high-ranking administrator of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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”.
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.’”
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.
Pillar is wrong to have released this information about Burill. What he was doing was not a crime and outing him smacks of homophobia.
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.”
I am sure there are plenty of people within the Catholic church and its hierarchy who are violating all manner of that body’s archaic rules concerning celibacy, monogamy, homosexuality, and other aspects of sexuality. If all those people are kicked out, there would be few left.
I suspect that many of us lead lives of quiet hypocrisy in many small ways. Hypocrisy deserves opprobrium only if the people being hypocritical take it upon themselves to be publicly condemnatory about others doing the same things that they themselves are doing in private. It is not clear where Burill stands according to that standard. His job was the general secretary of the USCCB. While the general secretary of an organization is technically supposed to be just the chief administrator of an organization and execute the policies decided upon by the collective body, in this case the bishops, in practice a wily general secretary can acquire and wield enormous power, almost to the dictatorial level. We do not know if Burill kept a low and neutral profile while the USCCB advanced its anti-LGBTQ agenda, whether he tried to mitigate the nastiness of the policies, or whether he actively promoted it as part of keeping his own sexuality hidden.