Catholic clergy surveillance org 'outs gay priests'
Religious non-profit allegedly hoovered up location data from dating apps to ID clerics
A Catholic clergy conformance organization has reportedly been buying up tracking data from mobile apps to identify gay priests, and providing that information to bishops around America.
The group, Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal (CLCR), was formed in Colorado in 2019 and relocated its principal office to Casper, Wyoming in April, 2020, according to Colorado State business records [PDF].
The Washington Post on Thursday said that it learned of CLCR's location data acquisition program from two people with first-hand knowledge of the program, heard an audio recording of group president Jayd Henricks discussing it, and saw documents supporting the allegations.
We have no comment. Have a blessed day
On its website the group claims that it seeks to help clergy live by the church's teachings and that "renewal of fidelity to church teachings will enhance the church's credibility among members and non-members, thereby re-empowering the church to carry out its mission to proclaim and witness to the gospel."
One of the declared purposes of the group is to "provide evidence-based resources to bishops that enable them to effectively judge and support quality formation practices." Another is to "identify weaknesses in current formation practices and priestly life."
In a 2018 book that contains an interview with Fr Fernando Prado, Pope Francis suggested gay priests should be celibate or leave the church. CLCR appears to be trying to enforce that dictum.
According to The Post, some of those involved with the CLCR project also participated in the outing of a prominent priest in 2021 by Catholic news site The Pillar, which reportedly obtained mobile app data that supported inferences about the priest's lifestyle.
Two reports prepared for bishops that The Post reviewed supposedly indicated that CLCR had obtained mobile app data covering the 2018 through 2021 period. The data came from several dating and hookup apps used by gay men – mainly Grindr, but also Scruff, Growlr, and Jack'd – as well as apps with a more varied audience like OkCupid.
The group is said to have cross-referenced location data obtained from data brokers, who have access to ad exchange information, with church residences and facilities to identify priests using these apps.
It's unclear whether any of this data has led to repercussions for those brought to the attention of bishops. The Catholic Church is not known for its openness about personnel oversight or discipline.
Reached by phone, a CLCR spokesperson said, "We have no comment. Have a blessed day."
The Register also asked The Catholic Foundation – a Colorado-based organization listed as a 2020 financial donor to the CLCR – whether it was aware of the CLCR's alleged activities and whether it supports them. We've not heard back.
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Presently, the US has no comprehensive federal privacy law. As a result, data from mobile devices is bought and sold with few restrictions.
On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed for the first time at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the agency has in the past "purchased some such information for a specific national security pilot project, but that's not been active for some time." Currently, the agency relies on court orders to obtain that information and does not plan to go back to buying it from data brokers, said Wray.
Last June, a group of US senators – Democratic and Independent – proposed the Health and Location Data Protection Act to ban the sale of Americans' health and location data. It remains tied up in committee.
Last week, another group of US senators – including Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who backed the previous bill, and two other Democrats – introduced the Upholding Protections for Health and Online Location Data (UPHOLD) Privacy Act, which prohibits the use of health data for advertising and disallows the sale of location data.
Many such bills have been proposed at the federal and state level, but most go nowhere.
"Data brokers collect information about the precise movements of hundreds of millions of people without their knowledge or meaningful consent, and then sell this data to a variety of private and state actors," said EFF spokesperson Josh Richman in an email to The Register.
"This extremely sensitive information can reveal where we live and work, who we associate with, and where we worship, protest, and seek medical care. We need strong data privacy laws to prevent such abuses, and to protect our rights and reputations." ®