Burrill’s departure comes after a small Catholic media newsletter called The Pillar said it had access to data from his cellphone that showed he was regularly using the LGBTQ dating app Grindr and was frequenting gay bars.
An alarming line from the Post report says that some privacy experts “couldn’t recall other instances of phone data being de-anonymized and reported publicly, but that it’s not illegal and will likely happen more as people come to understand what data is available about others.”
Since last fall, Burrill was the general secretary of the USCCB, which saw him coordinate all of the conference’s administrative work and planning. Because he’s a priest, he took a vow of celibacy, as Catholic teachings remain opposed to sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
The news of Burrill’s resignation was first reported on Tuesday morning by the National Catholic Reporter. That outlet was citing a memo from the conference’s president, Archbishop José Gomez, to other bishops.
“It is with sadness that I inform you that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill has resigned as General Secretary of the Conference,” Gomez wrote. “On Monday, we became aware of impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior by Msgr. 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 has resigned effective immediately.”
It’s not clear who collected Burrill’s information. Outside of saying it wasn’t involved, spokespeople for the USCCB who spoke to The Washington Post did not answer questions about how the info was gathered or what its leadership thinks about it.
The Pillar reported it got the info from data Grindr collects from its users, and that an independent firm was hired to authenticate it.
“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,” wrote The Pillar. “The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar conveys mobile app date signals during two 26-week periods, the first in 2018 and the second in 2019 and 2020. The data was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”
A Grindr spokeswoman called the Pillar’s report “homophobic” and said that the data that was written about wasn’t accessible to the public.
“The alleged activities listed in that unattributed blog post are infeasible from a technical standpoint and incredibly unlikely to occur,” she said in a statement issued late Tuesday afternoon. “There is absolutely no evidence supporting the allegations of improper data collection or usage related to the Grindr app as purported.”
The Post went on to quote privacy experts about the larger issue of people being able to use “anonymized” data to piece together what app users do in their private lives (though, again, note the statement from the Grindr rep above).
Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who advocates for LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic Church, wrote the following in a viral Facebook post:
Today a website called “The Pillar” published an article that forced Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill to resign as the general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
What did the article do? It 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.