When news broke that Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, resigned after revelations that he was connecting with men on the gay hookup app Grindr, it seemed like something that's become familiar, bubbling over with schadenfreude. Here was another hypocrite in power — the Catholic bishop's conference is an extremely anti-LGBTQ force in the American church — revealed by gay and bisexual men who'd connected with him.
We've come to revel in these kinds of stories, where gay men on gay hookup apps reveal the truth about a right-wing politician, or sometimes a conservative religious zealot, with whom they've engaging in sexually charged chats or even met with — a person aiding and abetting the harm done to LGBTQ people with religious condemnations that drive some LGBTQ youth take their own lives, or influencing lawmakers who are lobbied to strip away rights. The story often goes viral on social media, and we're all glad to see a homophobe fall from power.
But this story isn't anything familiar. It's actually something very new (or reborn from times past) and emanates from a sinister operation: Those who collected information on Burrill are Catholic extremists, right-wing journalists at a newsletter here on Substack called The Pillar, who claim to have gotten a hold of tracking information which many Grindr users assume is anonymous, and which, if obtained, would be difficult and expensive to get. It all points to a well-funded, well-coordinated organization.
When all is said and done — and this story is still playing out — this may well lead to Steven Bannon or any one of a number of dangerous players on the right and in Trump World who've both mastered data analytics and have an agenda to crush liberal reforms within the Catholic church and hobble Pope Francis.
The Pillar editors include former editors at the right-wing Catholic News Agency (owned by EWTN), J. D. Flynn and Ed Condon, who've written for publications like the historically anti-LGBTQ National Review, as well as other conservative outfits, like the Spectator, the New York Post and the Washington Examiner. They are also Catholic canon lawyers.
Another editor is a data analytics professional. It's not known who funds The Pillar, but with editors who are journalism professionals who left full-time jobs it's highly doubtful that Substack subscriptions are paying for their livelihoods, as well as the kind of nefarious and costly research needed to do this kind of work.
Holding up their kill
The way the Pillar went about the story is quite alarming. They appear to have collected all of their information on Burrill not by engaging in reporting in which they interviewed various individuals who interacted with Burrill, confirming what they may or may not know; rather they say they "obtained" geolocation data of Grindr interactions from his phone — even claiming to have located him in a bathhouse in Las Vegas at one point — over a period of time going back to 2018. (And they are thus making assumptions based on nothing but circumstantial, if surely suggestive, information.)
And then they went to the Catholic bishops with the information — dates and times of Burrill allegedly connecting with various men on Grindr, and locations, including the bathhouse. Soon after, the USCCB announced Burrill had resigned because of "impending media reports alleging possible improper behavior."
So, they held the resignation up as a trophy, a kill, waving it around as a threat to others in the future.
In their report, they couched their rationale for pursuing the story not only as one about exposing that Burrill was "engaged in serial and illicit sexual activity."; they grotesquely attempted to conflate the use of Grindr and hookup apps with predation of underage boys — though there was no evidence of Burrill having connected with anyone underage.
They promoted the vicious stereotype of gay men as pedophiles, which is actually what hardline conservatives in the church have done in recent years to try to excuse their own leadership's toleration of child rapists within their ranks — shuffling them around from parish to parish, not bringing the issue to law enforcement — by vilely blaming it on gay priests.
It's everything the church claimed under Pope Benedict — and investigations and studies have shown it to be absolutely false — and that may give us a clue as to their motives, as The Pillar appears to be an arm of the traditionalists in the church fighting against Pope Francis's more enlightened outlook and attempts at reform.
A Warning Shot
The story in fact comes a week after Francis rankled traditionalists again by imposing restrictions on the old Latin Mass, reversing Pope Benedict. But it could also be a warning shot to Francis and others that Burrill is just the beginning, and that they'll start going after many more powerful figures in the church hierarchy.
Burrill is a priest who came up through a Wisconsin diocese with has long had staunchly conservative, homophobic leadership, like most U.S. dioceses. And he's been working for the Bishop's conference, which has fought for decades against LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people, and continues to do so. Many of the American bishops themselves still defend the church's actions in the sex abuse scandals, and still propagate the lie conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. More recently, the USCCB was in the news for threatening to vote to withhold communion to President Biden, a devout church-going Catholic, because he supports abortion rights.
So it's doubtful Burrill was a secret liberal force for change within in the conference, and more clear he is every bit the hypocrite he appears to be. You don't get to be elected general secretary of USCCB without toeing the line. After reading a fair number of Catholic commentators on the story, and speaking with some observers and academics, I don't believe Burrill was targeted because he was doing anything to undermine traditionalists. I think he was a pawn — and probably an easy target because he may have had so much out there regarding his activities — taken down by a group sending a message that this is what they are capable of doing.
As as journalist known for revealing the sexual orientation of public figures who were often harming the LGBTQ community, I find myself in an interesting place in following this story. I was at the center of "outing" controversies many years ago when Time magazine coined the term based on my and others' work, around the time I revealed that the multimillionaire publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes was gay after his death in 1990. So, I'm certainly not opposed to telling the truth about public figures who are working against LGBTQ rights while secretly gay themselves.
But this is about something far bigger, not in the service of helping LGBTQ people and very much in the service of seizing power within the Catholic church — ultimately in a way that harms LGBTQ people. And most alarming is the use of geolocation data that users believe is anonymous, something that tech privacy advocates have been warning about for years.
The massive problem with Grindr
Grindr told the Washington Post "there is absolutely no evidence supporting the allegations of improper data collection or usage related to the Grindr app as purported" and said it was "infeasible from a technical standpoint and incredibly unlikely."
But Grindr has been slammed in the past for selling data to third parties — who can conceivably sell it to others — while still promising privacy to users. As Recode notes, "despite app developers' and data brokers' frequent assurances that the data they collect is 'anonymized' to protect people's privacy, this data can and does fall into the wrong hands." And there are ways to "de-anonymize" the data and track it to a particular phone, which is what happened in this case if The Pillar's claims are true.
As Recode explains:
While it's not known how Burrill's data was obtained from Grindr (assuming, again, that the Pillar's report is truthful), app developers usually send location data to third parties through software development kits, or SDKs, which are tools that add functions to their apps or serve ads…
All of this, however, requires sophisticated operators and, if data is being bought from third parties, lots of money. The Pillar — again, whose funders are unknown — hasn't been transparent about where and how it got the data, whether it paid for it or was given the data by someone else who might have paid for it. The Catholic News Agency, where the two top Pillar editors previously worked, published a piece the day before the resignation, warning of surveillance by tracking via apps and claiming they were offered information by an individual, which they turned down.
While that may be true, Mike Lewis, who founded the Catholic news siteWhere Peter Is and regularly covers the entities involved, wondered if CNA and The Pillar were actually working together:
The Pillar story also leaves many unanswered questions. For example, both the Pillar and Catholic News Agency (which ran a cryptic article on Monday that indicated something like this would be happening) withheld the name of the agency that provided the data. The Pillar didn't indicate who paid for the data set (note that their article said "obtained" rather than bought or purchased). For that matter, the Pillar has never disclosed their primary source(s) of funding. Did CNA and the Pillar work in tandem? Why did they target Msgr. Burrill, of all people?
Who is behind this well-funded operation?
Dawn Eden Goldstein, a Catholic theology professor, author and journalist, dug into the story quite a bit, and in a Twitter thread offers up three people who could be behind this kind of operation and helping to fund it:
- Steve Bannon, who has joined ultra-conservatives in launching blistering attacks on Pope Francis (who's defended migrants and has spoken against nationalism), and certainly is familiar with data harvesting;
- Sean Fieler, "a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager and major GOP power player," who is also prominent in TrumpWorld or;
- Frank J. Hanna III, "a longtime Legion of Christ funder who made his millions selling subprime credit cards--and on his ownership of the Official Catholic Directory."
July 21st 20212 Retweets25 Likes
Her thread is worth a read, as there's other illuminating information. She's speculating about who might be behind this affair, of course, but based on much knowledge of the players and the field. It might be one or more of them — or none of them. But it becomes clear that this kind of story couldn't be done without people who have the contacts, capabilities and resources.
Obviously there are so many issues raised by Burrill's forced resignation based on The Pillar's actions. Certainly, the U.S. needs more laws protecting data, as privacy experts have been stressing for years.
But one of the biggest takeaways here is how, amid what is becoming an epic battle inside the Catholic church, the traditionalists have shown they will stop at nothing. Personally, I think it's a sign of weakness, an act of desperation by people trying to retain power who know they're losing, as Catholics have changed with the world, many even leaving the church; it mirrors the larger political struggle in the United States.
I don't think they will ultimately win the war, but there will likely be more casualties.